(This is take 5.)
I’ve read a lot of books I really enjoyed thus far this year. And I’ve read a lot of really excellent books. Sometimes they’re even the same book.
But Chime was the first 2011 book that made me say wow, and a year later, it’s still making me say it. When I finished this (last October, having snagged a copy at a preview), I actually called up Sarah (who, I remind you, was still in the midst of her Printz term) and said, “I totally just read the 2012 Printz winner!” Sarah didn’t care, but I just kept babbling: I was giddy with the experience of reading Chime.
I don’t think I’m alone in my Chime love (6 starred reviews, NBA shortlist, and lots of generally great reviews). You can be sure the committee will be looking at this one (or, really, probably has looked, given the early pub date), and I would guess they’ll look pretty closely given the stars and the NBA nod.
Will it hold up?
I took the time to read Chime a second time, in part because I found myself saying in polite party conversation, “My money’s still on Chime,” and in part because I wanted to write something more substantive than “YAY CHIME LOVE AWESOME PRETTY WORDS.” (Takes 1-4.)
It held up.
Not perfectly—no book is perfect—but actually quite a lot of things were even better the second time around, when I could savor the language (since I already knew what would happen) and see that in addition to sounding good, there was some wonderful language play that parallels the story line (more on that in a moment). Some other things lost out on a second read: with more time to savor the language, it was easy to spot the clues (for lack of a better word), and sometimes they seemed a bit clumsy. Also, for all that I loved (LOVED) the world of Swampsea, there were some details that didn’t add up the second time around (where are all the other teen girls?). Of course, the book is so much about what Briony sees (doesn’t see), and she is so unreliable a narrator, that these flaws might instead be additional clues into how Briony sees (is blind to) the world. In fact, I would be very happy to be convinced that all of these flaws are in fact thanks to Briony’s limited perspective and thus not actually flaws at all.
So let’s look at the good:
Unreliable narrator FTW!
The unreliable narrator is a delicate thing, and the balance between being absorbed by the unreliability and being annoyed by it or finding it contrived is pretty narrow. Briony is delicious as a narrator who cannot be trusted. She’s so bright and so aware of so many things, and so very witty, and yet so incredibly stubborn and blind to the truth that is practically beating her over the head. The reader should be suspicious from the very start: the discrepancy between her actions and her words and the recurrence of expressions like “I may be wicked but I’m not bad” are both tells, but the truth is such a shifty thing here. Briony’s evidence for her wickedness seems quite compelling, even as the evidence for her goodness mounts, and it’s almost painful watching how her every attempt to do good (saving Mr. Drury, treating with the Boggy Mun about Rose and the swamp cough) makes things even worse, and how she uses that to fuel her self-hatred.
The world—a vaguely alternate England, where the creatures of folklore and fable are really real and the tensions of industrialization threaten not only agrarian human lives but also these others—is full of small delights, particularly the mythology (is it mythology if it’s real?). There is not one moment of exposition: reveals come in dribs and drabs through Briony’s thoughts. The closest thing to exposition might be the description of the dark muse, but only on the second read, when (mild spoiler alert) I knew dark muses were important to know about.
But the real strength here is the language. I might be a little of a sucker for language, so when it’s good, I tend to get excited. I loved the voice and the word choices on the first read, but I noticed additional details on the second read, particularly some layering of images and language and the abovementioned parallels.
Briony is always the narrator, but she slips from first person to second and third person. On the surface, this makes the voice compelling (it’s not static!), but also seems vaguely crazy. When you start looking closely at all the ways Briony thinks about herself that are actually Stepmother’s words, thoughts, or influences, Briony’s tendency to think of herself at a remove becomes a clue to how much she does not know herself, and how fractured her mind might be. She employs second person most often when she speaks of the bad things, which might indicate that she is actually parroting Stepmother.
Briony speaks in circles and spirals: the double riff on “The House that Jack Built”, but also the way language is used and repeated; the way casual, almost stream-of-consciousness thoughts (Eldric as a boy-man, the leonine quality of his hair) become motifs; and the ways Briony twists language to suit her purposes, just as she has been twisted by the words of others. The circle motif also parallels the novel’s structure (which circles in on itself from the trial to the past and back again, with spirals of reason and thought surrounding the deeper past, particularly Stepmother).
This is rich, complex stuff, and it’s often stunning on a sentence-by-sentence level too.
I could go on (and on, and on). If we were at a table together (say, a table in a locked room in a hotel in Dallas?), I’d be pounding the table in my excitement and brandishing my messy pages of notes and my much flagged copy of Chime at you. But I think you’ve gotten the point. This is one of the strongest contendas of 2011, and I’ll be very surprised if it doesn’t get a nod (even if it’s a silver one) come January. What say you? Has the swamp cough rotted my brain, or am I officially the winner of the guess-the-Printz prize?
Pub details: Dial March 2011; reviewed from final copy