The Chimes (2016)
Written by: Anna Smaill
Genre: Fantasy/Literary Fantasy
Pages: 304 (hardcover) 265 (epub)
Why I Chose It: When the call went out to read the World Fantasy Award nominees, I selected The Chimes based on its premise: an entire society full people with a severe memory disorder. For reasons which I will get into in the discussion, this topic is always interesting to me. Also, the covers were all very appealing. Sometimes I really am that shallow.
After the end of a brutal civil war, London is divided, with slums standing next to a walled city of elites. Monk-like masters are selected for special schooling and shut away for decades, learning to write beautiful compositions for the chimes, played citywide morning and night, to mute memory and keep the citizens trapped in ignorance.
A young orphan named Simon arrives in London with nothing but the vague sense of a half-forgotten promise, to locate someone. What he finds is a new family — a gang of scavengers that patrols the underbelly of the city looking for valuable metal to sell. Drawn in by an enigmatic and charismatic leader, a blind young man named Lucien with a gift for song, Simon forgets entirely what originally brought him to the place he has now made his home.
In this alternate London, the past is a mystery, each new day feels the same as the last, and before is considered “blasphony.” But Simon has a unique gift — the gift of retaining memories — that will lead him to discover a great injustice and take him far beyond the meager life as a member of Lucien’s gang. Before long he will be engaged in an epic struggle for justice, love, and freedom.
Spoilers will be more as to the overall plot-type than as to specific plot points. I am also going to begin my discussion with what is going to appear to be a digression so I might as well warn you now.
Discussion: Prior to sitting down to write this review (which, much to the editorial staff’s frustration, I have been putting off doing for weeks), I went into the office for a few weekend hours. Part of what I do is summarize cases which are going to go to hearing in the next few months. That means I read through each exhibit, pull out what is relevant about it, and note what page number the important information appears on so that we can cite to it later. Despite being an upstanding product of the digital age and basically preferring electronic text to paper for reasons I talked about at length last month, I find it much easier to do this if I print the exhibit I need to summarize. It is easier to keep track of what page the useful stuff is on that way.
This is the most difficult and frustrating part of my entire job.
Why? Because despite the fact that I am overall a reasonably intelligent person, by the time I close the PDF or TIFF, I’ve already forgotten which one it was and whether I’ve printed it or not. It gets much, much worse if there are other people around, because I can’t remember “did I just print Exhibit 5F or 6F?” at the best of times, much less when the mayhem of a busy law office is erupting all around me. If I’m distracted at all I’m likely spend the whole day printing random parts of the exhibit file and then getting confused about which ones I have and which ones I don’t, and did I remember to hit print or did I just look at that one and, well, shit. It’s not fun, is what I am saying, and I now go in to print things on the weekend for good reason.
Such a simple task is a struggle for me because I have a learning disability. A significant feature of the one I have is having a disordered working memory. Working memory is the sort where you hold pieces of data in your mind in order to manipulate it. My memory is otherwise extremely good (it’s as if my brain has decided that the only way to remember anything at all is to REMEMBER IT FOREEEVVVEERRRR), but god help us all if the fate of the world ever depends on my ability to add three digit numbers in my head. The numbers just won’t stay in my head.
So when I say, “The Chimes is the best literary illustration of what it feels like to live with a memory disorder,” I am speaking from thirty-plus years of extremely frustrating experience. The first part of the novel is one of the most disturbing and powerful things I’ve read in the last few years. The second part, which deals more with the overarching plot, is much more generic. Well done, for what it is, but if you’ve read twenty or thirty “THE QUASI-RELIGIOUS ORDER WHICH CLAIMS TO PROTECT US FROM THE BAD THING IS SECRETLY THE POWER MAD CABAL WHO CAUSES THE BAD THING AND ONLY OUR INTREPID HEROES CAN STOP THEM AND REVEAL THE TRUTH” stories you’ve read them all.
That’s about as far as I’m going to spoil the plot. And frankly, if you can’t see that curve ball coming this is clearly pretty close to your first rodeo. Or something like that, anyway.
The real magic in this novel is in its setting, its worldbuilding, and just how much fucking research Anna Smaill must have done to write so beautifully about a society afflicted by a concept that I, frankly, can’t talk about without feeling like the proverbial blind man who is trying to describe what an elephant looks like. I read a fair bit about cognitive disorders, learning disabilities, and the like since it’s both personally and professionally relevant to me, and all the little details Smaill has peppered through this work without coming off like she is a professor who is giving you a lecture are a delight.
For example, music is extremely important in Smaill’s memorylost British society. It is a well-known and well-researched phenomena that many people who suffer from profound memory disorders can none the less still play an instrument, or sing a song they know. Therefore, in Anna Smaill’s future England, much commercial communication is now sung — sung to not only tell passers-by what they do (buy contraband, or sell street food), but to remind the doer what they’re doing. History is sung twice daily around the titular Chimes. Directions, too, are sung, and to forget a part of the song that gets you to market and back means you may end up disoriented in the streets until a new song grabs you and re-invents your purpose (as we see happen to the protagonist early in the novel) or until you waste away.
Another concept Smaill talks about is body memory. Body memory is habit, routine, things you physically know how to do, so fast and so ingrained that you don’t have to think about (or remember) how to do them — you just do them. This is a large part how society continues to function when people can’t lay down memories. Another, darker facet of the same concept is illustrated when the protagonist’s father chooses to impart a very strict lesson — an aversion — in his son by forcing him to instinctively associate certain actions with pain. Again, we instinctively avoid things not only that have hurt us or made us ill or unhappy in the past, but happened around that action. I know perfectly well that it wasn’t the liverwurst sandwich that made me ill when I was in kindergarten (…it was frankly probably the crab apples I was eating off the ground in the back yard) but I still can’t stand the smell of the stuff now, thirty years later.
But the detail that struck me the most powerfully was the descriptions littered throughout the novel of what it feels like to know you are forgetting. I’ve felt that feeling. I feel it every time I’m stuck staring at someone who has just rattled off something I should be able to remember, and I’ve already forgotten before the words are done coming out of their mouth. What the phone number is. How to get to the corner store two blocks away. It doesn’t matter how hard I try to remember these things. I try, and I focus, and I want, so very badly, to be able to remember this information long enough to do what I’m supposed to do with it (write the number down correctly, or walk to the store to get milk without getting lost). But it doesn’t stay, and all I’m left with is knowing there is something I’m supposed to know but don’t. The idea of everything being like that — of not even knowing exactly what it is I’ve forgotten, just that I’ve forgotten it — is terrifying and unsettling. I wouldn’t have procrastinated and dithered about writing this review if I had not found it so very disturbing. It is a credit to the eloquence of Smaill’s prose that I still found the book moving and beautiful despite that.
Conclusion: The Chimes is a haunting, beautifully written work which grapples with the role of memory in making us who we are, both as individuals and as a society. Its unique premise and worldbuilding are grounded in a strong understanding of neurosciences, medical research cognitive theory, and are altogether stronger than its well-worn plot. I have not read the other World Fantasy Award nominees, but it’s easy to see why this was a nominee, and I do not find it surprising that it won given that the strength of its premise quite makes up for any weakness of its well-worn plot.