It is a strange thing isn’t it, about publishing? You get a sudden series of books by completely different authors all dealing in their own particular ways with the same things. In a review recently, about Bill Clegg‘s new novel Did You Ever Have a Family the reviewer (Fiona Wilson) comments on the “narrative trick of the moment”. I have not read this novel yet, it is still waiting on the unread Man Booker Long list pile, but what the review notices is that three books on the long list alone tell the story through the voices of the different and disparate characters. Actually, the books she lists as well as Bill Clegg’s are Hanya Yanagihara‘s A Little Life and Marlon James‘ A Brief History of Seven Killings, so she obviously has not also read yet another book on the long list Sanjeev Sahota‘s The Year of the Runaways. All of which I have already written posts about this year, though I tend to do the summing up once I have read the whole list. But this trope is a mighty coincidence!
The Chimes taps into another whole narrative trick: the loss of memory caused by some outside agency or force. The eponymous carillon of the bells is causing a great forgetfulness to fall over the country. There has been an Allbreaking which has destroyed among other things, The Tower of London, London Bridge and many of the houses. The survivors have lost the power of normal speech and mostly communicate in tunes and songs, they have lost the power of reading and writing, and any words which they can see they can only see as code.
Most of the action centres around London, and around a small body of young people who are searching for palladium, to sell or trade, but it is dangerous and competitive work and this pact [sic] – Brennan, Abel, Claire and Simon – are led by Lucien, who is partially blind. He seems able to see but not in the usual sense. Simon also has a gift, one that he only slowly comes to recognise, though Lucien “sees” it immediately and knows how important it will become.
This book has echoes (though faint) of Howard Jacobson‘s J and Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant. Just like the group narratives, these books are all completely different. In J some dramatic trauma has occurred which everyone vaguely remembers but cannot quite remember exactly what it was, in The Buried Giant it is the dragon’s breath that is keeping everyone from remembering.
In The Chimes Anna Smaill has set up a world where music, generally the solfege (Doh, Re, Me Fah, Soh, La, Te, Doh) is the way to speak. The whole book is full of musical instruction – subito, tacet, lento, etc. describe physical movement, whether running or staying still or even communicating. This may become a problem unless you are a musician and read music, or listen to music in which case it will be completely familiar. I fear that if you have no ear for music at all, then a lot of this book will be completely lost on you.
The whole book hovers between the suspension of disbelief and the embracing of magic. Along with the total loss of words, all the birds have disappeared. There are some quite sublime passages, as when the two boys Brennan and Simon go hunting:
Once you get through the broken entrance gates at Bow, the burial grounds are thick and full of life. Today I find the overgrown lush tangle a relief somehow. Plants with their leaves held up like hands, ones with huge coloured flowers like trompets. [sic- there is a huge amount of deliberate mis-spelling] All among the trees and vines big white stones growing up crooked like teeth.
We walk among them. Some of the stones are in shapes made to look like they are not stone at all but cloth, or leaves, or an open book. Some are made to look like creatures with breasts like a girl and strange parts branched out behind. I notice these everywhere today. Figures with muscled branching growths on their backs that even though made of stone, look full of light and air. I stop for a while and stare. Most of the stones have old code on them, moss-covered and meaningless.
Anyone who has walked through London cemeteries can recognise this passage, even the stone angels which the boys do not understand because they have never seen a bird (or an angel); but the magic of the writing is that you also understand how much of a puzzle it is to these two young boys who do not remember things, whose lives are governed by bells and something called “onestory”, which is a tune…and learning tunes is the way they navigate life, just the day to day business of travelling, and also the search for palladium, which for some reason is silence, or lack of a tune.
I am always glad to see a first time novel on the Man Booker long list, whether this will make it to the short list is doubtful, but I still have a few to read so reserve judgement.
Based on a true account of one of the Spanish Conquistador expeditions to the New World, written by the survivors, it imagines an account written by the one survivor who was not asked to contribute to the official document: a Moorish slave belonging to the Castilian Andrés Dorantes de Carranza.
This expedition led by Pánfilo de Narváez was, according to these accounts, a complete failure. Judging by the fact that only four people survived this was most likely true. It was certainly a failure of leadership and of discipline, but the three Castilian gentlemen (including Dorantes) who wrote the account for King Charles V of Spain, were, according to the eponymous Moor, Mustafa ibn Muhammad ibn Abdussalem al-Zamori, somewhat lacking in honesty or being economical with the truth, having omitted or forgotten some of the more painful episodes or activities.
This is a tremendously clever and convincing novel, an interesting idea and a well planned narrative, but literature as opposed to story, it is not.