I’ve just finished reading a rather intriguing and gripping novel called “The Chimes” by Anna Smaill, a New Zealand author. It was long listed for last year’s Booker prize, but I only came across it when I googled “dystopian future” novels, to get me in the mood for a novel I’m planning to write myself. Dystopian it certainly is, but with a difference.
For the most part, the novel is set in a London which has been shattered by something which is known as the Allbreaking. The scenes are of a city which has returned to Dickensian, or even mediaeval, times. With added ruins. The people are controlled by a mysterious force which manifests itself as Onestory and Chimes. Each day these are broadcast to all – through music. Music is now the common language, particularly in public. Chimes is so intense, beautiful, that it captures people’s senses and destroys their memories. The only true memory is Onestory, a tale of how and why The Order, the rulers, came to power.
Naturally, the novel tells a story of how The Order and its control through music is challenged. The two central characters, a young lad called Simon, and a not much older man called Lucien, who leads a group of Pactrunners down by the Thames at the Isle of Dogs, or Dog Isle, as it is called in the book. They forage in the river mud, mostly in the network of tunnels underground, for scraps of a pale metal called The Lady. Its importance and provenance is unclear early on, but all is revealed…
Simon has come down to London from Essex, at the behest of his recently deceased mother, to meet a friend of hers, who can help him. The friend doesn’t want to know. Simon wanders through London, drawn to the Thames by a mysterious silence. One of the book’s paradoxes – silence seems to speak to those who can hear. Down by the shore he is ambushed by the aforementioned group of Pactrunners who are called Five Rover, and led by Lucien, who is blind, but blessed with extraordinary hearing and musical ability. Simon is taken in by them (as is a girl called Clare, who has been pretty messed up) and mentored by Lucien, who helps him to recapture his memories. Normally memories can only be objectmemories, retrieved from scraps and momentoes that people carry around with them. Their bodymemories help them survive, do a job, converse, but not much else. Each day, in Onestory, they are reminded how they have been saved from destruction by The Order. There is only one version of the truth…
Or is there? The story unfolds. Lucien’s role becomes more complex. Simon discovers more about himself. I’ll say no more!
The action eventually moves to Oxford, home of The Order, the Citadel, the Chimes. The plot, which starts slowly, weaving repeat patterns of language, metaphor, music, daily existence, allowing Simon gradually to make sense of things, accelerates. I found it hard to put down towards the end, and couldn’t really predict how things were going to end. As it should be!
The use of language was interesting. There were echoes of “A Clockwork Orange” in Simon’s alternative vocabulary, with musical terms used as replacements for some our everyday words. It was easy enough to figure out, and added to the fascination, for me. Might annoy some people, I guess.
The role of music was the book’s ultimate theme. Music as belief, religion, ideology, with the same impact as any other ideology when it comes to power. Intolerant of challenge, of disorder, of impurity. Controlling – and ruthless with its retribution. All must bow down before the Idea. A sadly familiar theme in 20th century history, with the 21st not doing too much better.
The difference in “The Chimes” was that devotion to the purity of music was the source of ideology. Improbable, I suppose, but an intriguing idea, convincingly developed in the story. A metaphor, no doubt, for the Islamist fascism which besets parts of the world today and scares – and scars – the rest. A true example of the Allbreaking.
Music as evil. Not a theme you usually get in this blog! But people can get very passionate about the music they hate as well as the music they love. The love can breed the hate. I think I shook that off when I left my teens and really started to discover the wide, wider world of music. But a lot don’t.
So, love music, but don’t let it define hate or prejudice.
And read “The Chimes”!