The Plot: Briony Larkin, seventeen, is a wicked girl. Stepmother knew, and tried to protect her, helped Briony keep her secrets from her family and neighbors, tried to teach her to control the witch within. Stepmother is dead, leaving Briony alone to deal with a distant father and sick and injured twin sister. Despite knowing she shouldn’t pursue her witch ways — witches are hanged — Briony sees her sister getting ill and fears it is the fatal swamp cough. Briony goes into the swamp to talk to the Old One there, the Boggy Mun, to beg for her sister’s life. Shouldn’t an Old One grant the wish of a witch?
The Good: Oh, I loved this book. I agonized over putting together the plot description because it seems inadequate. I considered just cutting and pasting the publisher’s description but that didn’t seem to capture Chime, either; not in the “I have sixty seconds to sell this book to you. Here’s why to read it” way I wanted. The best one liner I’ve seen so far is from Reading Rants: “If Tender Morsels had a love child with Madapple, and My Sweet Audrina was the midwife, it might turn out looking like Franny Billingsley’s crazy good new fantasy, CHIME.” The only thing I’d add to that is “and set in a world like The China Garden.”
Briony tells this story, and it is a mad story. The first sentence shows us Briony’s strength and hints at what she has done: “I’ve confessed to everything and I’d like to be hanged. Now, if you please. I don’t mean to be difficult, but I can’t bear to tell my story. I can’t relive those memories — the touch of the Dead Hand, the smell of eel, the gulp and swallow of the swamp. How can you possibly think me innocent? Don’t let my face fool you; it tells the worst lies. A girl can have the face of an angel but have a horrid sort of heart.” Yes, a confession and an insistence she is horrid. But, how horrid is a girl who has confessed? How horrid is a girl who says “please”?
The village is Swanton, besides a swamp, outside of London; the time is when “the new century entered its second decade.” It’s an alternate reality, though, because not only is this a time and place where the country folk’s beliefs in Old Ones and witches and the Dead Hand and the Boggy Mun is justified, because these things and people are real, but also because trains are being built and swamps are being drained to improve the quality of life, “at least according to Queen Anne.” I’ve Googled away and don’t see any British Queen Anne at that time. (If you have an explanation / reference that I missed, let me know.)
The difficulty with a book like Chime is in how much to tell a potential reader; enough that they pick it up, but not so much as to give away all of Chime’s and Briony’s secrets. I felt a bit of a thrill when I realized that the Old Ones are real; I want other readers to have that same thrill. Briony tells the story, and her words are beautiful, haunting, challenging, full of clues and twists and turns and this is the type of book where it’s best for the reader to go along for the ride with Briony. The language is original and creative and intoxicating. When I got to the end of Chime, after many reveals and shifts in plot, I was stunned at just how many clues Billingsley and Briony had provided to the reader all along.
I can say that part of the joy is from the beginning (“now, if you please“) there is the knowledge that Briony is not as terrible a person as she think she is. Oh, yes, she relates some of her past actions, spinning them out, and the reader is duly horrified; but even as she tells us this, the present-Briony does and says things which are delightful and smart and caring. On meeting the handsome Eldric, smart and energetic, a “golden London boy,” he says politely, “what am I to call you?” She answers, “You may call me Briony, which makes it awfully convenient because so does everyone else.” Briony is equally smart and clever as university-educated Eldric, no shy miss here. And if Briony is so wicked, why does she risk the swamp and the Boggy Mun to try to end the deadly swamp cough?
Another point to ponder is the timeline Billingsley uses to tell this story. It begins with “The Trial,” with the confession quoted above. The next chapter goes back in time to when Eldric and Briony first meet. It is two months and three days after Stepmother’s death; it is three years after Stepmother and Father married. What is it, about this moment, that makes it the point where Briony starts to tell her story?
In addition to the wonder of Briony and the story she tells (“It’s my story and I get to make the rules,”) this story of witchcraft and the danger of the Old Ones and the ways human seek to protect themselves, there is also the romance between Eldric and Briony, a romance between someone light and someone dark.
Because when I read this book, I put post-its on every page; and because Briony is such a complex character; and because the way this story is told; Chime is one of my Favorite Books Read in 2011.