Google+ Bookslingers Blog: Review: Chime by Franny Billingsley

Review: Chime by Franny Billingsley

Chime is the story of Briony, who thinks she's going to burn in Hell. Briony lives in a town where witches are hanged, and she's also spent the past several years believing herself not only a witch, but responsible for all the ills of her family.

Enter the Hot Guy, AKA: the Lion Boy, AKA: Eldric.

Eldric is clever, and kind, and interesting - all the things that Briony Does Not Need, considering how busy she is denying herself anything that makes her happy.

Because Briony, you see, is a witch. Or at least, she fears she's a witch. And in Briony's town, they hang witches. On top of that, Briony is absolutely certain - since her stepmother spent such a long time convincing her of it - that she's responsible for every single terrible thing that has happened to her family, ever.

Here come the spoilers!

Briony has a (largely absent) father and a twin sister named Rose. Though she often denies that she is an ordinary girl, Briony styles herself as the ordinary twin, at least in relation to Rose. Despite this, her thought-processes are strangely up-and-down, circuitious, at turns starkly-detailed and lushly-vague. Sometimes it annoyed me, as too-lyrical language in fiction not-infrequently annoys me, but what it reminded me of the most was, actually, Sherlock Holmes. Reading Briony thinking was a lot like reading the way you imagine the inside of Benedict-Cumberbatch-as-Sherlock's head looks like, if Sherlock were of a more poetic bent. A lot of round-and-round, too-close focus, fitful and petulant denial, boredom, quicksilver deduction (except when Briony is being infuriatingly, stubbornly stupid; this happens a few times).

The language in this book is lovely, even when it's disturbing. I really enjoy the way Briony sometimes loses herself in sensation - when she describes being a wolfgirl in the swamp, for instance - but at the same time I sometimes find that her too-close physical descriptions are a little jarring; mostly this comes up in physical descriptions of people. Her romantic-rival-possibly-an-evil-fairy Leanne is almost uniformly nauseating, and the scene where she offers a blood sacrifice to the Boggy Mun actually made me flinch away and my eyes skip over several lines until the cutting was over. Briony is full of weird details and weirder similes. The book is also full of restlessness and discontent and that sensation of unhappiness and guilt becoming a physiological symptom; usually nausea.

An unsettling book to read, all in all. In turns pretty (in highly unconventional ways) and funny and sweet but also spooky and frustrating. Frustrating because much of the time, it seemed more a set-piece than a story.

The thing about Chime is that for much of the pagecount, not very much actually happens. There's a lot of leading-up to things about to happen, but mostly this book is made up of remembering things that have already happened, and the remembering happens very, very slowly. It reminded me a little of reading Lark Rise to Candleford, which I remember getting about 85% of the way through before realizing there wasn't actually a story happening: it was just one long, meandering description of the people, the buildings, the society. And because of the lost-in-her-head, super-descriptive style of the narrator, we're often drawn off into side-tracks of imagery and it becomes hard to tell how much time is actually passing; a sensation not unlike spinning around and around enough times that when you stop, the room doesn't stop turning.

Or The Last September, except Billingsley actually pulled it off - at no point did I feel an overwhelming urge to throw the book across the room.

There was a story happening, though; you were just so disoriented for so much of the time that it was hard to tell, all the time. I liked the characters I think I was supposed to like and disliked the obviously unlikeable ones, but some things were absent or invisible or too soft-edged or stagnant, which is actually a pretty good word to describe a story that takes place in a swamp. The swamp itself is actually a pretty compelling character in and of itself; its presence is often stronger than that of the human characters.

I also wanted the mythology better explained, but that might just be me - actually this was done in a very taken-for-granted folklore style that implied there was no need to explain these things - they were obvious. In many places it was less a story and more a series of vignettes - a girl with a sad past trying to remember a series of events that made up the kernel of her sadness.

So, it was lovely, though while in the midst of it, it felt unstructured and like you were supposed to simply understand things that were neither shown nor told.

Fortunately, it's also one of those books where the last twenty or thirty pages spontaneously and retroactively restructures the previous two hundred. While you may feel a little wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey while reading this book, once you get to the end it solidifies and most things make sense. And while it's a rather rueful happy ending - not a lot of lasting optimism - it's a happy one nonetheless.