A young orphan named Simon arrives in London with nothing but the vague sense of a half-forgotten promise, to locate someone. What he finds is a new family--a gang of scavengers that patrols the underbelly of the city looking for valuable metal to sell. Drawn in by an enigmatic and charismatic leader, a blind young man named Lucien with a gift for song, Simon forgets entirely what originally brought him to the place he has now made his home.
In this alternate London, the past is a mystery, each new day feels the same as the last, and before is considered "blasphony." But Simon has a unique gift--the gift of retaining memories--that will lead him to discover a great injustice and take him far beyond the meager life as a member of Lucien's gang. Before long he will be engaged in an epic struggle for justice, love, and freedom.
In Simon’s world, the music of the Chimes at the end of the day wipes away memory, and the Onestory at the start of the day tells the story of humanity’s history. Since humans can’t hold on to memories, they hold on to bodymemory (repetitive actions mostly having to do with their trade) and objectmemory (imbuing specific objects with a memory they want to keep with them). But newly orphaned Simon has a gift – he can see memories and hold on to them longer than most. When he makes his way to London he falls in with a group of scavengers led by the ringleader Lucien and forgets about his past and his quest – for a time. Memory won’t leave him alone though, even in a world where that shouldn’t be possible.
Do you know that strange familiar feeling when a story is deeply original, but it somehow also reminds you of some thing, some touchstone in your memory? That is both the baseline story and the feeling evoked by this book. It is clear from the very start that something is deeply awry in Simon’s world, and that something has to do with music. Music is so pervasive it has replaced most speech, and the written word (code) has died out completely. From page 31 of The Chimes, “The words are simple, because words are not to be trusted. Music holds the meaning now.” The Onestory says that words were the thing that brought about the end of the world. And with no one who can remember yesterday, much less the past, all of London must accept that as fact.
The Chimes is chilling and poetic and original, and I loved it. Music permeates every page, every part of life in Simon’s London. Events occur subito or lento, not suddenly or slowly, and time is marked in musical notation. That said, you need not have a background in music to “get it” – everything can be picked up in context. And as you’d imagine with a story told in an amnesiac world, the truth comes to light only slowly, in fits and starts, as memory unravels. Meditations on the meaning and genius of music, truth, and the shape and fragility of human memory (and then what that means about the “essentials” of life) – these are the things that take a dystopian tale and marry it to literary fiction. The resulting story is just gorgeous.
Other marks in its favor: it’s fairly short, it has good cross-over potential (there’s nothing subject matter-wise that I’d hesitate to give to a mature twelve year old), and though it has the “tag” of literary fiction, it would fit just as well on a sci-fi and fantasy shelf. Also [spoiler: highlight to see text] the only romantic relationship is a gay one, so that’s happy-making [end spoiler].
So I’ve told you why I love it. But. This book will not work for everyone, as evidenced by its Goodreads rating. It doesn’t teem with a constant sense of danger, and there’s no villain to root against from the start. Subtle, complex stories have to hit the right chord with the reader, and if you add up the heavily musical language, dystopian setting, and memory loss afflicting the characters, reader drop off is a given. It’s a book that takes a bit of patience, but it’s wildly inventive and unsettling and beautifully written once you’ve gotten inside and been swept away.
I happened to read The Chimes at the right time. I needed a story that was simultaneously beautiful and new, and that asked the age-old questions, “Do the ends justify the means?” and “What does it mean to be human?”
Recommended for: fans of the music of Patricia McKillip’s writing, the sincerity of Patrick Ness’ protagonists, and the subtlety of Leah Bobet’s worldbuilding, those looking for an adult readalike of Lois Lowry’s The Giver, and anyone who loves music, cleverly wrought dystopias, and/or literary fiction.