The Chimes by Anna Smaill

Imagine a world in harmony, the days ordered by a music that everyone shares. It sounds idyllic but this order comes at a cost. The harmony can’t account for everything and can’t safeguard everyone. Outside the citadel where the chimes are made and sent out across the country, order erases the individual through the decimation of story.

Simon, not much more than a boy, is told by his dying mother to go to London in search of a woman. His mother says this woman will help Simon, but she doesn’t say how or why and with every passing day the music of the chimes soothes, distracts and trains thought in one shared direction. Everyone reminds Simon to ‘keep your memories close’ but he must do more than that to understand his mother’s mission and remind everyone of their past.

The plot is of course more complex than this, but to say more would spoil the journey. Though it took me a few pages to feel immersed in the vibrant world of the novel, once I was there I was hooked and quickly read to the end.

Though the novel has much to say to adults, placing memory at the very heart of narrative and identity, The Chimes reads like a young adult/cross-over novel. This isn’t to denigrate it, this is simply to describe my feelings as I read it.

I found The Chimes gripping, I enjoyed unravelling the various threads of the book but the mysteries uncovered weren’t revelations for anyone outside of the novel; there was nothing that challenged my world view or questioned my outlook. I had fun, though.

If dystopian fantasy with young protagonists sounds like your kind of thing, or you like mudlarking or music (or all of these), then you will definitely enjoy The Chimes.

Next week I’m taking a break from the Man Booker 2015 (after all, are prizes always the best arbiters of taste?) and will be reading The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier.


Satin Island by Tom McCarthy

Satin Island opens in an airport. U., the narrator, is waiting for his plane. Beginning with a sense of delay in transit perfectly sets the tone and displays the care with which this novel’s strands have been woven together – any opportunity for form and theme to mirror plot is cleverly exploited.

U. is an anthropologist pilfered from academia to form part of the corporate machine – though his boss, Peyman, reminds him that universities are no longer anything more than failing businesses. He’s kept busy compiling dossiers for clients, looking into the symbolic meanings behind breakfast or certain styles, fabrics and folds of clothing, but his real project, casually offered to him by Peyman, is to create The Great Report on our times.

At the airport U. learns that the company he works for has just won a huge contract making them part of an unexplained project that is already insidiously changing society. We don’t know what this project is as such, or how U. is contributing to it. He certainly doesn’t feel that he is contributing anything.

U. continues to follow his interests and instincts, desperate to get to grips with The Great Report. He fills his walls with pictures of oil spills, diagrams of parachute manufacture, lines of connection across maps and ideas that create a kind of web in which he loses himself; his ability to see meaning in his findings or interests always moments away from realization: buffering.

‘Staring at this bar, losing myself in it just as with the circle, I was granted a small revelation: it dawned on me that what I was actually watching was nothing less than the skeleton, laid bare, of time or memory itself. Not our computers’ time and memory, but our own. This was its structure. We require experience to stay ahead, if only a nose, of our consciousness of experience – if for no other reason than that the latter needs to make sense of the former, to (as Peyman would say) narrate it both to others and ourselves, and, for this purpose, has to be fed with a constant, unsorted supply of fresh sensations and events. But when the narrating cursor catches right up with the rendering one, when occurrences and situations don’t replenish themselves quickly enough for the awareness they sustain, when, no matter how fast they regenerate, they’re instantly devoured by a mouth too voracious to let anything gather or accrue unconsumed before it, then we find ourselves jammed, stuck in limbo: we can enjoy neither experience nor consciousness of it. Everything becomes buffering, and buffering becomes everything. The revelation pleased me. I decided I would start a dossier on buffering.’ (p68-9)

As U. continues to work on his report, he challenges the rules of anthropology, rewriting it into narrative, fiction, a story we tell ourselves to configure or ascribe meaning, in this instance, to contemporary life. The book is full of clever ideas and those tiny nagging, repeating details that seem insignificant and yet so important, pertinent. I found myself desperate to get in touch with Tom McCarthy and tell him that the inventor of the parachute himself died when his parachute failed (the narrator becomes intrigued by what he perceives as a spate of parachute sabotage), though his parachute wasn’t tampered with he just forgot to calibrate for the weight of the material of the parachute itself as well as the weight of its human load and plummeted to his death from a hot air balloon witnessed by an audience of skeptical Victorians.

This factual web of connection and coincidence casts a very pleasing hold over me, and I imagine many readers, because this reading of the world is something we all do all the time and something we simultaneously filter into words, anecdotes and stories that we intend to narrate to others.

Two happenings in the book spring to mind at the mention of this filtering, connecting, narrating web: one is the death of U.’s friend from cancer – his friend claims that the most frustrating thing about death is that he has never lived anything of significance without also imagining how he will turn in into a story he tells others but this time he won’t be alive to tell anyone; and the other is the narrator’s claim that The Great Report has already been and is being written all the time by the interconnected web of cameras and electronic signals created by security and computer cameras, phones, emails, text messages, web page visits, credit card transactions etc. etc. In some senses this very slight book is a version of The Great Report, or at the very least a nod towards encouraging us to look more carefully and consider the importance of compiling and transforming data. Hence the Satin or Staten Island conjured in U.’s dream (at one point U. plays with the letters and I wonder why he doesn’t suggest Satan Island): the Island grown from everything we’ve thrown away, cast out, excreted, is like our very own oil spill in the making; it holds condensed within it the very essences of our cultural heritage.

Satin Island is a thought-provoking and exciting book told in near aphoristic snippets that ferrets down into our underground warren and comes back with shreds of our flesh in its teeth.

Next week I’m reading The Chimes by Anna Small.

The Death House by Sarah Pinborough

I enjoy and admire Sarah Pinborough’s writing and looked forward to reading The Death House. Set at some distance from today, in the stable aftermath of wide-spread disease in which those with defective genes turned into something monstrous – what is never made clear, but it’s implied to be something like a zombie – most of the population are healthy. Most.

Everyone is tested and some, like Toby, are found to have the defective gene that leads them to the Death House. As all those above 18 are safe, all the tested are young. They are taken from their families and locked up in a kind of boarding school in which nurses, particularly Matron, watch for any sign of sickness.

Toby is the novel’s protagonist. As one of the older boys, he has taken charge of Dorm 4. He does his best not to engage with others, not to form bonds, but just to pass the time until he’s taken to the sanatorium. He sleeps in the day and wanders the house alone at night, having refused to take his ‘vitamin’.

Then new inmates arrive and everything changes. Clara, both beautiful and rebellious, brings a new spirit to the house. Toby is forced to question his disdain, his distance and his night-time domain.

I raced through the book waiting to discover more about the disease, more about its role in society, whether even it was a disease at all or just a method of population control and, whilst I enjoyed all of these uncertainties and found them compelling, the book ended before I’d really had my fill. I wanted the ideas to have deeper foundations. I wanted the novel to stretch beyond the children’s sphere, using confrontations, overheard adult conversations, or evidential discoveries to lend greater insights into the wider world of the novel. But this didn’t happen in quite the way I wanted and left the novel feeling that more could have been invested in it.

I think readers who like exploring human nature in isolation and under the pressure of immanent death will still enjoy the book – the writing is as fluid as ever – but I feel Sarah Pinborough could have pushed these ideas further. The Language of Dying, which if you haven’t read you should, remains my favourite of her books as it isn’t afraid to stretch out beyond the confines of the novel’s setting. I’m sure some might say that The Death House would be a great novel for young adults, but my reservations would remain. Children and adults are all deserving of fully realised ideas and even though The Death House is a fun and thought provoking read, I think it could have been more.

Next week: I’m reading The Emperor Waltz by Philip Hensher; I’m very excited to be hosting a guest blog by Melissa Bailey; and my new venture, Authors QH, launches today with the wonderful Heidi James. Watch out for another blog post later this morning.