Book Review: Chime, by Franny Billingsley

Poor Chime got a lot of attention after the National Book Award mixup with Shine (also an excellent book), so I was glad when I finally hit it in my stack of books to be read. I suspect the furore over both books will eventually fade and they’ll be remembered as great works, which they are, rather than as the subjects of a series of embarrassing mistakes and awkward public statements and negotiations. And I look forward to seeing Shine recognised with other awards, which it well deserves.

Chime revolves around the life of a teenage witch, opening with a confessional; she deserves to be hanged, she explains, and then she lays out all the evidence. Along the way, readers start to suspect that her story is not quite what it seems, and layers begin to peel back, revealing more and more information about Briony even as she herself seems unaware of it. I don’t want to be all spoilering all over the place but I will note that it’s an intriguingly quiet and elegant narrative, one where the only way for the heroine to find her way is to open up and trust people, and, critically, to stop hating herself.

Briony is repeatedly tested and asked to have faith in herself, even though she thinks she’s worthless and evil. While Chime is set in a curiously floating dreamworld, Briony’s struggles with herself could ring true for someone living in the very real and concrete world of now, and I like that. The book becomes a commentary as it turns in on itself, without explicitly coming out and stating it, which makes it my favourite kind of social commentary of all; you can read it on the surface as a great story integrating mythology and folklore, which it is, or you can delve a few layers deeper and get so much more out of it.

The worldbuilding here is superb and it makes me want to read more books set in this world (thankfully, that appears to be in the works). I love how Billingsley played with traditional folklore, history, and landscapes, particularly the integration of the marsh and sense of place into the whole story. Setting is so critical for mood, style, and tone and the marshes were the perfect backdrop for Chime, right down to their confusing mires and sudden sinkholes that could eat a person up without a trace. The whole world came alive for me on the page and I really felt more connected to the characters through their home; knowing the landscape helped me know them.

One thing Chime has going for it is intoxicating language; very rich and almost creamy. Beautiful, beautiful language where words wrap around themselves and through each other in these elegant and spectacular sentences; Billingsley skillfully uses creative and artful repetition and is clearly very careful about her word use. Some parts of the book are highly poetic and graceful, and it has the effect of drawing you even deeper into the dreamy, slightly cloudy world that Briony occupies. As Briony begins to clear away the cobwebs and find the truth, the language crisps up and gets cleaner, tighter, sharper.

Billingsley shows how language and words can become a snare, trapping the reader with Briony before allowing Briony to slowly pull herself out, drawing the reader with her. It’s really beautifully done and it illustrates not just Billingsley’s brilliance, but also the clear benefits of a tight collaboration between writer and editor. Technically, Chime was a shivering pleasure to read because of how superbly the book used language as a narrative tool; not just a vehicle for storytelling, it became part of the story, and this was also very critical as the book progressed and the reader learned more about the role of language in Briony’s own life.

As Briony discovers herself in this book, the Industrial Revolution is hurtling full steam ahead all around her, and there are some interesting comparisons between Briony and the land she lives on. Both are opening their eyes and losing their innocence, finding out sharp, hard, cold things about the world around them while also discovering new, bright, and glorious things. Chime contains some interesting embedded commentary on the loss of place, knowledge, and folklore which made it a particularly interesting read for me because I’ve been thinking about these topics a lot lately.

There are also some interesting disability themes in Chime, which I don’t want to discuss in too much detail for the benefit of those who haven’t read the book yet. Readers are presented with some challenges in terms of the handling and treatment of disability, particularly acquired disability, as this is a world where disabilities are not uncommon. The themes around madness were also intriguing (and sometimes troubling), and I was particularly interested in Briony’s sister Rose, who can be read on a lot of different levels. It’s easy to write her off as a troped depiction of cognitive disability, but there’s more going on than that. I love how as the book progresses, Briony is forced to confront and accept Rose’s humanity and individuality, and readers are taken along with her.

I stayed up all night reading this book because I didn’t want to stop, and that, perhaps, is the most telling recommendation at all. I sank so deep into the world of Chime that I was really sad when it ended. I wanted more of this world and more of these characters and I needed to know what happened next.