Van has finished reading…The Chimes by Anna Smaill

13 Jan

I got that tingle. In the way even the first paragraph immerses you in Simon’s world, how before we know his name we feel his abandoned state. I got that tingle and already I was thinking about Margaret Atwood’s Oryx And Crake (you know how much I love the opening of that book, right?). By the time I reached the end of the first chapter that tingle had turned into a very big grin. Anna Smaill leaves you in no doubt about the sense of fear that haunts this world.
‘Keep your memories close,’ Simon is warned, and he knows only too well how lost he’d be without the meagre contents of his roughcloth bag – his objectmemories. Anna Smaill leads us through the fragments of Simon’s days, gradually building our view of his world and how it works, inviting us in as Simon finds his place and discovers a purpose buried in the fragments of his recollection.

Memory is so linked with how we function, how our world works – who can’t inexplicably recall advertising jingles from when they were kids? And how frustrating it is when we forget something, or when there’s a name on the tip of the tongue that refuses to be grasped. Mrs Van asked me if I remembered a particular place the other day and I found myself examining the process of trying to remember: an initial concentration; then zooming out, thinking about the locality and what I could remember nearby, actively recalling driving there and building a more precise image.
What if every day was a slate wiped clean? What if you had to choose your memories, decide which are the important moments as they happen and fix them to something?
This is at the heart of The Chimes. There are myriad books about one person’s memory loss or lapse or selective nature, a few concerning a prodigious capacity even. I’m hard-pressed to recall one that deals with mass memory in such a striking and inventive, even audacious manner. Imagine a world where you can’t recall from one day to the next, where your very survival depends on starting work young enough to instil in your body the sense of your vocation. There’s a scene early on where Simon meets a boy on a hill and the sense of fear, of the desire to comfort and the cruelty of survival is palpable. We’d call it muscle memory, yet how right it is that the author freights the idea so with that term bodymemory. So vital, so deeply ingrained it won’t be lost. It’s the lightest touch but so crucial.
That awareness of language comes through time and again. Music is central, indeed pivotal in the world Anna Smaill has created and the way she incorporates that into the everyday telling of the story is superb. I’m in danger of throwing far too many big names around but I was reminded of Bernard MacLaverty’s Grace Notes, and in particular Herman Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game. This latter was a particularly strong association. That notion of art elevated to the very highest form it can attain; the devotion of those in whose hands this art is held; the reverence with which it is treated by everyone. Very early into the reading I wondered which instrument(s) Anna actually plays. Aside from the lento, piano, forte instructions you may recognise from sheet music, there are some more technical inflections around scale and harmony too, even the solfege instructions before the opening page that, if you know the theory, will deepen your reading.
And I’m stepping lightly now as I don’t want to give anything away, but the wider aspects of the world of The Chimes are handled with equal subtlety. At the centre of most dystopian novels is a wielding of power that must be opposed in some way. What Anna Smaill also gives us is the other side of that coin, the widespread acceptance, even the comfort gained from embracing that control. After all, in such a world who could possibly imagine what would replace the prevailing power if it should fall?

If you’re thinking it’s all starting to sound a little heavy, fear not. This book is, I think, one of those rare beasts where the plot, the characters, the language is all in balance. There’s never a word spoken that rings false, there’s never a turn taken that leads nowhere and there’s no dead weight in the list of people we encounter.
This is the first book I’ve read this year and I’m already thinking it’s going to have to be a pretty amazing year of reading for this not to feature in my highlights come December.

It’s always good when you discover a book that makes you think. I can safely say it’s been a while since a book made me think about so many different things. Ask me what The Chimes is about and I might say social control, or perhaps the importance and function of memory, or history or why we have stories, even. It spoke to me about all these things, and more besides. It sounds heavy, but I’d have no hesitation recommending this to an avid young teenage reader (and will likely be telling everyone I know to read it). As for book groups, it’s tailor-made, able to prompt a broad range of discussion points. Just make sure you allow some extra time to get through them all!

My thanks to BookBridgr and Hodder & Stoughton for allowing me to read The Chimes.

The Chimes is published in paperback on 14th January 2016 by Sceptre ISBN: 9781444794502

You can find Anna Smaill on Twitter @AnnaESmaill and on her website,


3 Responses to “Van has finished reading…The Chimes by Anna Smaill”


  1. A Q & A with Anna Smaill, author of The Chimes | vanisreading - 21/01/2016

    […] by Sceptre on the 14th of January 2016. It’s a terrific book (of which you can read my review here) which raised many questions in me, and I’m very glad to say that I was able to pose some of […]

  2. My top five reads of 2016 | vanisreading - 10/01/2017

    […] in January I had the great good fortune to meet up with The Chimes by Anna Smaill. It was the first book I read in 2016 and even then I knew it would have to be a […]

  3. Recommend Me a Book – March-19 Dystopia – unFinnished Dreams - 15/03/2019

    […] You can get The Chimes here. Follow Anna Smaill on Twitter. Read a review of the book here. […]

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