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BOOK REVIEW: The Chimes by Anna Smaill

| 25 February 2015 | 1 Reply

BOOK REVIEW: The Chimes by Anna Smaill 

February 2015
Paperback, $29.99
Reviewed by Steph O’Connell



A boy stands on the roadside on his way to London, alone in the rain. No memories, beyond what he can hold in his hands at any given moment. No directions, as written words have long since been forbidden. No parents – just a melody that tugs at him, a thread to follow. A song that says if he can just get to the capital, he may find some answers about what happened to them.

The world around Simon sings, each movement a pulse of rhythm, each object weaving its own melody, music ringing in every drop of air.
Welcome to the world of The Chimes. Here, life is orchestrated by a vast musical instrument that renders people unable to form new memories. The past is a mystery, each new day feels the same as the last, and before is blasphemy.

But slowly, inexplicably, Simon is beginning to remember. He emerges from sleep each morning with a pricking feeling, a sense there is something he urgently has to do. In the city Simon meets Lucien, who has a gift for hearing, some secrets of his own, and a theory about the danger lurking in Simon’s past.


The Chimes starts off slow, heavy.

At first, you find yourself wondering if you’re perhaps too tired to grasp the concepts, to see what’s going on, to understand the words before you. Maybe you need a little while after the last book you read, maybe you’re rushing it.

You’ve been thrown into this world which is like ours in some ways, but so very different in others. You recognise the names of places, instruments, and other daily things, but you’ve also been introduced to so many new words, that at first you feel a little lost.

The sentences are pretty, you know that much. But you’re not quite sure what they’re saying.

My name is Simon, I think. I live in the storehouse on Dog Isle, in the city of London. I am a member of Five Rover pact. We run in the under, and in the under we search for fragments of the Lady. We sound Onestory. We trade in the markets of London. We go silent for Chimes at Matins and Vespers.

Matins? Vespers? Presto? Lento? Subito?
No one told you you would have to learn a different language to read this book!

I advise you to stick it out. 

At some point you’ll realise that it’s not a struggle anymore, that you’re not as confused by the story, and that you can’t put it down.

I want to tell this boy to leave presto, as soon as he’s able, not to risk any knowledge he has in his hands for weaving. I want to tell him that bodymemory is more than just skill. It ties you to your self. And then a dark thought comes. I want to tell him to leave his father while he can. He’ll forget the pain of that soon enough, and at least he’ll still have something to hold to.

At some point these words will cause only the briefest of pauses while you remember what they mean, and then none at all. You’ll find yourself wondering if they’ve decreased in frequency, or if you’ve grown more used to them, but whichever one it is, it speaks of the author’s skill.

At the height of dischord, at Allbreaking, sound became a weapon. In the city, glass shivered out of context, fractured white and peeled away from windows. The buildings rumbled and fell. The mettle was bent and twisted out of tune.

At some point you will realise you’re head over heels for these characters, for the relationships they have, despite not being able to hold onto memory, and you’ll find yourself torn between wanting to read it all now and wanting to savour it, to linger with them a little longer.

Yet isn’t it also true that I do it for her? For Clare born to parents who don’t exist and who’s lived on the river maybe forever or maybe for twelvenoch, it makes no odds which. It’s for Clare who never joined the pact but has been with it always. And who’s angry at the world but also at me for some reason I don’t know. Some forgotten betrayal. Or maybe some betrayal yet to come.

At some point you’ll realise that, where you had thought this book was breaking your mind, it’s actually opening it up to new things, making you aware of things in a different way, and bringing you into a world of understanding, alongside Simon, who is starting to remember for the first time in his life.

‘Eight is…’ I stop. My mind is only blankness, white as seawake. I wait and nothing comes. Eight is nothing.
‘Eight is…’ I say, and I can’t ignore my sense of failure. I see a mirrorsmooth stretch of sand uncovered by the water at low tide, with the patterns of water on it. And I see the clear space of a sky without cloud, opening and blue.
And just as my brain refuses and closes, there’s a jerk from somewhere else, violent and sudden. And a bubble rises from under the seawake, dark, and I can’t stop it. A picture of a white shirt with red on it in streaks.
‘Eight is the dead girl.’


The only thing that was a little hard to wrap my head around was the fact that everything was done in song. Everything had a song, and people sang a path to locations, especially when the directions were complicated. The way it was written suggested that these directions were given by way of changes in tune to tell a person where to turn, but I don’t believe it was ever made explicitly clear if there were words in all, some, or none of the songs.

I can understand why they use songs, because haven’t we always used songs to help us remember details? (Quick, list the order of the colours in the rainbow and try not to get that song stuck in your head. You know the one I mean. You’re welcome.) But as a person who hasn’t studied music properly for years, it was a little hard to grasp the mechanisms. The music in this world seemed to have an almost magical element to it.

If you have a musical background, you may be able to make better sense of this, but if you don’t, it doesn’t take away from the story. Just don’t spend too much time trying to work it out.

This is a fantastic debut novel that so doesn’t read like a debut, and has put Anna Smaill at the top of my insta-buy list. 


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