The Chimes by Anna Smaill, book review: Harmony among the dis-chord

New Zealander's debut novel is dystopian fiction but not quite as we know it

Set in an unfamiliar London, New Zealander poet Anna Smaill's debut novel The Chimes is dystopian fiction but not quite as we know it. Smaill draws on her training as a classical violinist to create a world where people communicate via music.

The sound of a great instrument – the Carillon – fills the airwaves morning and night. "Matins" tells "Onestory", the "bass" of life: an account of the "dischord" that shattered the world – the break between then and now, and the time when the old ways, the written word and memory, were banished. Then at "Vespers" it is "Chimes": "Solo and forte, strong enough to bring you to your knees, put you in your place. Different every time, and always changing."

Simon Wythern arrives in the city following the death of his mother, alone in the world bar the bag of "objectmemories" – the things infused with now forgotten personal significance every person keeps close. He falls in with a band of mudlarks who scour the "under" – the tunnels beneath the city – for nuggets of palladium, the material with which the Carillon is made. At first there's no before; his days are kept in tune by the regularity of Onestory and Chimes – "the world is shown in perfect order in the music. There is no space for any other thought" – and his "bodymemory", the muscle memory that allows for daily routines and work. Then, slowly, he starts to remember why he came to London in the first place.

There are certain similarities with Philip Pullman's Northern Lights trilogy, not least because the city of Oxford plays an important role, and as such Samantha Shannon's Bone Season series is also worth a mention – it's a similar story of the repression of the masses from a central stronghold of power and intellect.

Then there are the scenes in which Simon delves into the forgotten memories of others, an experience not unlike tumbling into Dumbledore's Pensieve. Yet Smaill's particular melodious inventiveness makes her story her own. The one stumbling block is her dependence on the written word to describe a world that's banned precisely that. Sometimes she's pitch perfect, a wordsmith turning text into melody; but other times the effect is jarring and slightly off key. She substitutes Latinate musical terminology where she can – slow becomes "lento", suddenly "subito", "presto" for quick, "forte" for loud – but this grates after a while, and some instances result in unwanted comic effect: "He blinks: lento, lento, then presto," reads one line, conjuring up the image of a magician.

A word of warning: reading the first few chapters is astonishingly disorientating – this, of course, is very much the point as we're in Simon's shoes as he struggles without memory: "Too many stories speaking tutti, too many melodies demanding notice." Perseverance is everything though, and eventually one slips into the symphony of the plot, the harmony of the prose.

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