When I asked to review this book, it was a shot in the dark. I knew nothing about it, nor the author, nor that it had been longlisted for last year’s Man Booker Prize. I was simply interested by the blurb’s description of its world: a future England, post-apocalyptic and dystopian, with the crowded hubbub of London at its heart. It turned out to be a gem: one of the most original concepts I’ve encountered for a very long time, and a story told with a profound sensitivity to the musical quality of words.
Young Simon arrives in London from the farmlands of Essex, with only two memories held tenuously in his mind: a name, Netty, and a snatched wisp of music to go with it. He remembers nothing else of why he is there, or why he has had to leave his home. But this is not unusual. Simon’s world is a place where memory lasts no longer than from one day to the next, and where people carry bags of objects to remind them of their most precious experiences. The days are framed and ordered by the Chimes, which flood the skies with their melodies, and life is regulated and lived through music. Each trader has his own distinct musical call; each street and corner its own fragmentary melodic allusion. The myriad musics of the city layer one over the other into a confusing din. When Simon’s two threadbare clues lead him to nothing but an old woman’s scorn, he drifts bewildered through this cacophony until, suddenly, he hears that rarest of things: a grain of silvery silence. Following this enticing void, he is drawn down to the banks of the Thames and here, where earth and water meets, he encounters a stranger: Lucien.
Simon lives in a storehouse on the Isle of Dogs with his pact. Ragged and half-starved, they exist on the edge of the law, spending their days running in the tunnels beneath the city, searching out fragments of that silvery silence which marks the presence of palladium. This metal is the most treasured and most valuable of all substances and, while its possession is illegal, it can be traded for good money. On this, the pact survive, scraping a living from snares and traps, guarding their frontiers against the incursions of rival pactrunners, and savouring the comfort of belonging somewhere – even if it is in a warehouse. They are guided and governed by Lucien, mysterious and half-blind, who sings out the routes they have to follow every day, who leads them in the sessions of Onestory and Chimes that bookend their day, and who – it seems to Simon – knows far more than he admits. To Simon, it seems that Lucien is watching him and waiting, but for what? And then, slowly, Simon begins to remember the conversations they have at night, in which Lucien begins, slowly and deftly, to force Simon to recall his memories.
This is a very creative, solid kind of world. Smaill’s writing has the quality of music – the smooth repetitions of the pact’s activities each day, with the odd jarring note as Simon begins to notice things that, for some reason, no one but he and Lucien seem to register. She conjures up the sense of lowering threat and danger, and yet at the same time the novel is peppered with beautiful compound words that are flush with elegance (she is, I discovered afterwards, a poet): memorylost; objectmemories; downsound; Onestory; roughcloth; eightnoch. Adverbs are musical: tacet, presto, cantabile, lento. And there are half-twisted words remembered from before the Allbreaking, when the world changed: electrickery, or mettle. The habitual use of these words helps to build up a concrete sense of Simon’s world, which is not only dominated by the music of the Chimes but woven through by it, lived within it, trapped by it.
So why not five stars, if I found it so impressive? Well, I couldn’t help feeling it should have been longer and more detailed. The pacing doesn’t quite work as it is. We need the slow beginning, certainly, to induct us into Simon’s world and to learn the rules of this familiar-but-different society. And we need the gentle, repetitive scenes in the pact so that we can see – as Simon does – how things begin to stick and change. But the end of the book travels too quickly: its denouement is too brisk, for all its cleverness, and there was so much more I wanted to understand and learn. Finishing it was like watching grains of sand slip through fingers that were trying to hold them back. As far as I know, there are no plans for a sequel (though another author would surely have plotted out a whole fifteen-book saga in such a promising world), and so I feel that we should have had a little more time with the characters. This is especially the case in the second half, so that we could continue getting to know them, rather than having the journey of slow self-discovery switch almost entirely to a quest narrative. And there are loose ends, and things which aren’t explained, and details which may be continuity errors (is Lucien blind or not?), but ultimately these issues are quibbles, overriden by the story itself.
This book is good. Very good. Better than you might imagine when you begin reading it: it catches you and drags you down into it. With unusual books, I sometimes try to think of ways to describe them, so that you can judge whether or not you might like it. The Chimes almost defeats me. Imagine Memento crossed with the world of the Queen musical, We Will Rock You, with a dash of Neverwhere, a spritz of 1984 and a few musical conservatoires thrown in for good measure. Does that make any sense? Probably not. Your only solution is to read this for yourself. I’d be very interested to know what other people think of it, because my admiration is not universally shared. Indeed, ratings on Amazon and LibraryThing are much more mixed than usual. So why did this novel grip me so much? Was it due to the objective quality of its concept, or was I, boringly, simply engaged by it because I’m familiar with the cities in which the story unfolds?
Help me figure this out. Let me know your thoughts.
I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review.