At a time when dystopian futures are a young adult novel’s game, Anna Smaill’s The Chimes rises from the ashes of teen love triangles and marketable trilogies as an original take on what has recently become an oversaturated genre. Edging more towards the book burning likeness of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Smaill secures an older demographic of readers through the sophisticated use of language and rhythm, something which her collections of poetry have already illustrated adeptly. A classically trained violinist, Smaill is no stranger to the power and influence of music, and its effect resonates harmoniously throughout her debut novel. It is through such reverberations that Smaill questions the issue of memory: its formation, retention, communal ties and value in our lives.
That relationship between music and memory is presented as a complicated one. In an alternative dystopian England the eponymous Chimes ring daily, preventing the formation of memories and eventually killing listeners with “Chimesickness”. The written word is banned in this world, and so music and solfege become the language of choice in the novel, indicated via an index of “Manual Signs of Tone in Key”, which illustrates the various hand gestures used to convey musical notes. But even visuals are rendered obsolete in their ability to convey emotion; as protagonist Simon wonders “[i]s there solfege for the word of what I feel? There are hand movements for harmony, accord, consonance. Could it be told in music by the longing on a scale?”
So, just as music is the ultimate expression of emotion as well as ‘the primary means of suppression’, memory is shown as limiting, but necessary. Told in both first person and the present tense, the first half of Smaill’s novel is painfully repetitive as Simon relives the same experiences daily, without memory: “I’ve passed this all many times, I know, and I am also happening on it for the first time today.” Like the game Simon Says, with which he shares his name, the protagonist must repeat his actions, unable to recall any prior memories or purpose. But Smaill also makes us question the value of memory and how we are forced to remember things that we’d rather forget, as Simon keeps certain objects as physical manifestations of memory that are cherished or painful: “A thing that I’ll keep whether I like it or not.”
As well as constituting a language in the novel, music is also a living presence. The central instrument used in The Chimes “is what is called an organ, which is just another word for heart,” pulsating its amnesia-inducing song throughout the city. However, Smaill’s music is not only alive, but universal, as Simon applies musical parallels in his descriptions of nature:
They have a kind of rhythm in their upright trunks and their branches that start thick and then divide and get narrower and lighter and faster till they quiver in the air like breath past a clarionet reed. That is a rhythm you can see, not hear. Perhaps music happens elsewhere than in ears.
It is through such passages that Smaill is able to use natural imagery as a visual equivalent to song, evoking music through the silent and immobile, and persuading us that music need not be purely phonetic.
As a debut novel The Chimes is very well orchestrated. Smaill’s symbiosis of music and memory drives this novel as the two elements become indistinguishable from each other. Simon clicks his fingers as he struggles to remember a rhythm, a musical gesture associated with memory. Similarly, melodies are used to map pathways by their rhythms, and people are known by their individual song. The Chimes envisions a world through sound: the “piano” of Lucien’s voice or the “C minor” of a metal gate closing. Smaill visualises with music as her language, just as she crafts memories from melodies.