Book review: the Chimes - dystopian tale set in London
by Anna Smaill
In an era obsessed with the currency of "now", it is not surprising that writers are becoming preoccupied with the value of the past and of collective memory. The fiction debut of New Zealand poet Anna Smaill explores this theme.
The Chimes is a bold, engrossing piece of dystopian writing which, despite a complicated structure and the many distinguished antecedents in the genre, comes across as fresh and original. Smaill's musical training as a violinist is the bedrock of her ambitious storytelling.
The setting is an alternative London, where written words and memory have been banned, replaced by an enforced communal amnesia. To ensure this "memory loss", the populace is controlled by an immense musical instrument, the Carillon - a kind of omnipresent tinnitus.
The brainwashing effect of the Carillon leaves those experiencing it, who follow its call "like ants moving up to sweetness", unable to form new memories; therefore, the days are an endless loop of repetition.
The plot revolves around Simon, an orphan in his late teens, and the charismatic Lucien, who heads the Five Rover "pact", a group of young outlaws. The London of the book, if it belongs to any period, is medieval, despite Lucien's references to Bach and Shakespeare. Dwellings are scant and basic. Commerce is undertaken through a system of bartering. Food is foraged. Those who are not part of the ruling elite, known as the Order, sign up to be apprentices or guildsmen.
The "pacts" consist of unwanted urchins who club together for strength, camaraderie and to avoid the "polis". The Five Rover rule their portion of the riverbank and the city's labyrinthine tunnels, "the under", subsisting by prospecting for pieces of silvery "mettle", known as the "Lady", to be sold to traders to raise funds.
The totalitarian regime expects its citizens to pay for the maintainance of the Carillon, the mechanism of their oppression.
With each day wiped clean, Simon can't recall his arrival in the city, but it soon becomes clear that he has a rare and dangerous gift for seeing others' memories.
It takes patience to familiarise oneself with Smaill's vision and lexical ingenuity. Latinate musical terminology abounds in her descriptive passages, sometimes confusingly: "things move lento"; "a slow murmuring until all is tacet".
Subverting the beauty of music into a force of agony and destruction is a daring gambit, while the wider premise of the novel - that a society must retain a diverse shared past if it is to have a cohesive future - is cleverly orchestrated and poignantly conveyed throughout.