Chime by Franny Billingsley
Dial Books, 2011.
Hardcover, 361 pages. Library borrowed.
They cannot hang an Old One without a trial, and we can’t have a confession without the story behind it. While Briony’s life had begun to disintegrate into madness much earlier, she’d become resigned to her new normal until the swamp cough and a certain young Mister Eldric Clayborne came to Swampsea. How’s a girl to keep her masks and secrets with both a Boggy Mun and a charming boy determined to interfere?
One of the first lessons of storytelling is minding your entrance and many heed this well enough. We all understand the import. Franny Billingsley does when she opens Chime with: “I’ve confessed to everything and I’d like to be hanged.” The resignation, the casual disregard, the impropriety and all in the use of contractions/the informal in that line and it sets the tone. Of course the idea of a confession and an possible execution doesn’t hurt either. What on earth could this girl have done?
Sticking the ending can be just as important and I know it has rescued more than a few reading experiences. Yet, a solid landing doesn’t make it memorable. I do not think I read many poorly written works, but I find those endings that linger–that take your breath, that infatuate you with anything and everything for several minutes after, that captures and closes everything from the story not with a tidy bow but a punctuated kiss—I find those kinds of endings all too rarely. Isn’t that sad? Maybe that is why I tire of trilogies; book ones offer some semblance of one, but must be coy, and two can’t afford it for the sake of the book three. I rarely make it to book three. I need to make a list of “gorgeous endings.” Chime would be on it. I would copy those lines for you, most remarkable being that final sentence, and it wouldn’t be too much of a spoiler, but it wouldn’t have the weight of the story behind it.
From the very beginning we understand that Briony believes many things of and about herself. It all seems very matter of fact and who are we, as readers, to argue. We are still becoming familiar with this magical place where she lives near a swamp in rural England where the Old Ones still roam. We aren’t sure what to believe. But not everything is as foreign as the creatures of lore, like the Chime Child, Dark Muses, Mucky Face, or the Dark Hand. There are things even more familiar than witches and vampires (vampires who are the only Old Ones to remain in the cities, “They’re remarkably tough, which is lucky for them, as they don’t embrace country living” 57). We recognize jealousy and guilt and impatience and love. We begin to notice something very very wrong with Briony. I was honestly ready to strangle Rose and her inability to tell any one of the secrets she was holding. Briony’s self-image is so distressing, I can’t tell you—I probably needn’t.
You could write your way into happiness. It might not be the happiness you’d experience if Eldric pushed Leannee from a cliff, but there’s a firefly glimmer in writing something that would please Rose. (218)
It would be easier to count the books where the protagonist is not a writer, but few use this so beautifully. Or maybe I am that easily charmed by madness. The story is a collection of paper straight from Rose’s hoard of scraps, found and fashioned, cut and paste into images sometimes lost to abstraction anticipating the moment when all the secrets can be revealed and certain persons are unmasked for who they truly are. I have to say, there were hints I didn’t catch and I had the pleasure to impressed by Chime’s revelatory endings. Billingsley captures a Briony who can’t quite capture everything into a singular enough image to provide anything revelatory to herself or anyone else (e.g. the reader). She and her memories, her confessions, they are a puzzle to work out over the course of the book. And to the reader’s good fortune, her journey toward self-realization is marked by an irreverent humor. The self-annihilation she faces at the beginning is extremely liberating; nor, as a witch, does she consider propriety part of her nature, so we find an unguarded young woman prone to thinking just about anything. An additional loveliness would be the identical twin Rose who is prone to saying just about anything (“Rose screams on the note of B flat” (39)).
“If you were a game,” said Eldric,” you’d be a puzzle. If you were a piece of writing, you’d be a code.” (292)
Billingsley makes use of our ability to observe things without seeing them (tangible in quality or no). The narrative style demands Briony’s skew, but even still, a character resists her perception. She shifts, and while other characters do undergo change, they feel the most steadfast (or consistent). This isn’t new, of course, but I can admire the Billingsley’s craftsmanship in Chime.
I can also admire her use of words.
The Wind smacked at everything. It smacked the river into froth. It smacked the willow branches into whips. It smacked the villagers into streamers of hair and shawls and shirttails. The wind didn’t smack us up, though, not the Larkin family. We were buttoned and braided and buckled and still. (5)
I was a bit overwhelmed by Briony and Chime at times, at how beautiful the verbs and metaphors were, the descriptons. I found this with Karen Russell’s collection St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves—but they are short stories. I’ve concluded that I really have to adjust my reading diet.
There is a romance, the loverly Eldric being a major catalyst for change in Briony’s state. Chime takes its time developing a friendship there and the interactions sustain other anticipations, like will she hang? what is actually going on? The patient development and progression of characters and relationships is an aspect of the novel’s success, but it can come into conflict with the less patient reader who wonders why it is taking so long for Halloween to arrive! And oh! but when it does arrive! And yes, I know I can’t have my ending without a bit of patience.
recommendations: ages 12 & up; those who enjoy a good story on identity and/or romantic tales; lovers of lore and its creatures, fantasy and mystery and/or historical pieces; those who are looking to improve their own writing. Yes, I’ve seen the cover, but I think boys could like this story, too.
of note: >>when returning for quotes, I suddenly had Doctor Who’s Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) narrating the text in my head—you’re welcome. I’m sure they’ve done the audio-book, but if another opportunity arose? >>the conversations on preserving the Old Ones and their stories pairs nicely with the preservation of ecosystems; makes me think of Hayao Miyazaki’s work; which makes me think Studio Ghibli could do a really lovely take on Chime except viewers would miss Billingsley’s use of slam, slap, weep, and bleed, etc.
I read this for R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril (VII). A witch and a mystery were involved so I figured it would be good—and it is. The ambience of the swamp and impending disaster (e.g. hanging) is a good seasonal treat to say nothing of the body gulping Quicks, the Dead Hand who’ll rip the unprotected body’s own hand off, the Unquiet walking amongst the living on Halloween, Dark Muses, and witches flying about without underpants.