The Chimes by Anna Smail





The Chimes was published in 2015 and was longlisted for the Man- Booker Prize 2015. It is a dystopian novel, set in a re-imagined London. It is a city which has no technology where the people subsist. The premise of the story is that after a catastrophic event, people have existed in a world where the written word is gone. All the shared culture and collective memory of society has disintegrated. Order is imposed on the mass of people who have lost the ability to remember, through sound from the Carillon. Each morning the official ‘onestory’ is rung out. This tells the people of the official version of what happened to smash the past. Later, the Chimes are rung out which take away the people’s memories. Each day is a repetition and the populace are lulled into compliance. They are unable to create a collective new memory. Some retain some snatches of memory by attaching them to objects which they carry with them. If they lose these objects, they become like lost souls, ‘memory lost’. The book conveys the terror of losing memories and awareness of one’s past.


The story centres on Will whose parents have died. He travels to London to find Netty, at the request of his mother. There, he becomes part of the Five Rover Pact, who inhabit the labyrinth of tunnels below. As pactrunners, they scavenge for silver mettle which they call the ‘Lady’. It is highly prized and they sell it on to traders. They are outsiders to the mass of people who work as apprentices. Lucien, the charismatic but blind leader of the Five Rover Pact recognises that Will has a special quality and as the book develops, the plot revolves around their growing friendship. They set out to discover the truth behind the Order, the ruling elite, and to understand the power and purpose of the Chimes. We also discover who they both are. 


Music and sound is the media through which people function but also through which they are controlled. The Chimes are the weapon by which amnesia is inflicted on everyone. Music is also the language that the Five Rover Pactrunners use to convey meaning and enables them to visualise their surroundings. It is reflected through the language used throughout the book which uses musical terminology to convey meaning. For example, people are said to move ‘lento’ rather than slowly or ‘subito’ if something happens suddenly. 


The novel reflects the fragmented lives which are lived by people who cannot remember. This makes it quite difficult to get into and to establish what is actually going on. As it develops, it becomes reminiscent of aspects of Philip Pullman’s ‘Northern Lights’ trilogy, especially once the story reaches Oxford, the centre of the ruling elite, the Order. The most interesting aspect of the story lies in the use of language and the use of an unreliable narrator through Will. 


In short: a finely crafted book with an inventive use of language.

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