Nafiza Recommends: Chime by Franny Billingsley

Chime

I’d better start with a confession, Nafiza: the first time I read Chime, I didn’t like it.

I mean, I got why you did: the atmosphere of the setting; the little twists when Briony, the narrator-protagonist, says something completely unexpected – the way she, every so often, describes something with an startling turn of phrase or a comparison I would never have thought of but that feels completely right; Briony’s candid confession of her own faults, which somehow by its very honest manages to charm…

But I didn’t like it. I found her determination to convince the reader that she, Briony, is completely evil slightly overdone in the manner of teenage histronics, both taking herself too seriously and not seriously enough. I guessed the true nature of two (or maybe I should say, three) baddies well before all is revealed, which added to my smugness. (See? I can be candid about my faults; am I therefore charming? I’m afraid not.) And then I got to the end. I reread the last pages carefully, put it down, and thought that was that.

Except that there was still this review to write, some weeks or months later. With slight reluctance (the stack of books from the library is high enough without adding rereads), I picked up Chime again.

Oh. I should have known. There is so much more going on than I in my annoyance had seen before. All the petty details that had settled on the edges of my consciousness the first time through now came to the foreground and, like a blurry picture brought into focus, illuminated the whole. What had annoyed me in Briony’s voice was revealed in its authorial glory as deliberate and skillfully executed: there is more than one story being told on these pages; there is more than one narrative being told by the same conflicted voice.

Oh, but this is clever.

Briony is witty and sharp, studious and worn out from grief and guilt, from her own illness and injury, and from caring for her twin sister, Rose. She is deeply angry with their father, who had in effect abandoned his family several years ago, and who insists that Briony’s step-mother, his second wife, killed herself. Briony knows better.

As much as she resents her father, Briony loves Rose, who is autistic. In that time and place there is no diagnosis and Briony, like everybody else, considers Rose’s behaviour unique to Rose. Briony also resents Rose, and feels guilty; as much as Briony loves (and is frustrated by) Rose, she loathes herself.

Briony is a witch with very little idea of how to control her powers.

Briony is also a liar.

The narrative unfurls in some ways like the most wonderful breed of mystery novel, the kind where all the clues are there. The protagonist sees all, hears all, and yet fails to perceive, and consequently, so does the reader because of that very identification with the protagonist, and the absorption into the world. Every page of Chime, is seemed, states the truth in plain sight – and how better to hide the truth? The first time through I knew there were pieces I was missing even as I sifted out certain Very Important Facts; the second time through I was amazed at what I had missed, what I had seen but not seen.

Interpretation is everything; and it seems that everyone in Chime is telling a story, one way or another. I have rarely read a story containing so many artists and so engagingly broad a definition of what constitutes art. Female artists – Briony and Rose – are slowly, surely brought to the foreground.

In the final chapters, Briony speaks about the creation of memory – what she calls memory paths – in some of the book’s most remarkable and moving passages. Her description and ponderings cannot be extricated from the narrative, and I both wish they could – I want everybody to read them, even and especially people who would not read this book – and know that they belong entwined in the story from which they draw their strength.

There is only one thing that sours the ending, and that is one character who comes close to the unforgivable. Everything else, in the second reading, emerged in true colours, fascinating and intricately woven; this one thing did not and never will.

And yet, one jarring and horrible false step does not – quite – erase the loving exasperation and very sisterly sisterliness between Briony and Rose, nor the mischievous kinship between Briony and town imp Tiddy Rex, nor the tentative resumption of family between daughters and father, nor the electricity-and-bad-boy friendship (and romance) that springs up between wolf-girl Briony and lion-boy Eldric, nor the horror of some of the Old Ones in the swamp, nor the kindness of Mucky Face and the longing of the other eldrich beings for stories. Chime is a book worth reading, and then rereading.

Thank you, Nafiza.

  • *relieved sigh*

    I’m glad. Beautiful and eloquent, Janet. I’m glad I didn’t steer you too wrong.

  • Oh, now I want to reread it! I loved it the first time I read it; will it become even more mind-blowing? (I’m anticipating being blown away by my reread of Ancillary Justice and Sword before I get to Mercy; totally different books from Chime, but both authors are so good at understanding and manipulating first person narration.)