Briony has lots of secrets. She’s a witch. She can see the Old Ones. And when she loses her temper, bad things happen, like the accidents that crippled both her sister and her stepmother. Luckily, her stepmother figured out why these things happened, and taught Briony the trick to make sure they never happen again: she must always hate herself. Always. And she can never tell anyone else about her secret power, or she will be hanged. But when the locals decide to start draining the swamp near the town for the train to go through, the Old Ones retaliate, striking down the children of the town with Swamp Cough. And when Briony’s sister contracts the fatal disease, she knows it is up to her to fix the problem, even if it may cost her her life.
Chime is an odd book. The writing is very stylized, and as Briony serves as a quite unreliable narrator, her internal dialog makes up a significant portion of the book. This provides for a brooding, despairing tone to the tale, because Briony hates herself, and has been taught to hate herself for years. While the plot of the story sounds familiar enough – young magical person faces down both societal scorn and magical mayhem to save the day – Briony is severely emotionally abused, and that provides a new look at an old tale. This also provides a level of maturity to the story that would otherwise be absent. There is also some sexual content, including violence that will be of concern to parents and teachers of younger readers.
Franny Billingsley has a very stylized prose – I am not sure if it is just a stylistic element in this book to distinguish the oddity of Briony and her perceptions, or if is common for her as I have only read this novel – that reminded me at times of Catherynne Valente, but never with the same ease of phrase that makes you feel like you are reading poetry. Instead beautiful phrases are matched with sentences that just clunk like an out of tune bell. However, overall it has a positive effect with a visually evocative result that makes it very easy to see the characters and the swamp. The oddness of the prose also serves well in describing the Old Ones in all their mystical strangeness.
Literary elements are well used throughout. The plot effectively meanders and circles back, like a stream cutting its way slowly through a swamp, or like a person treading well-worn thought circles in the mind. Readers that are fans of fairy tales will like this story, as well as those who do not mind an unreliable narrator. The resolution was a little too obvious in parts, and there were a few plot points that irritated me, especially in the conclusion, but I think they are mainly due to my being outside of the recommended reading age of 8th-12th grade. The seriousness of the content matter – both emotional and sexual – will not let me recommend this for a younger audience, even if they have the literacy to deal with the text.
Overall, I thought this 2011 National Book Award finalist was well done, but it will definitely not be to everyone’s taste. In fact, even though I think it is a good book, I’m not sure I actually enjoyed reading it. Now, of course, enjoyment isn’t hallmark of a good book – I don’t know anyone who actually enjoys 1984 despite it being an undisputed classic – but if you are looking for a book that is going to leave a smile on your face, Chime is not it. However, I do recommend this book for the appropriate audience. The problem I face is imagining an audience that will have the appropriate level of sophistication to enjoy the more literary elements of the writing style but won’t be disappointed by some of the problems with the plot.