This book was provided by the publisher.
I’m a little conflicted by this book, and I know I won’t write a review that does it, or that ambiguity, justice.
On the one hand this is a book of gorgeous prose. It’s lyrical (heh) and it’s evocative, setting up beautiful word-pictures. This is a world where although sight still exists, hearing has become far more important for many people – an inversion of today? There’s talk of whistling directions, of using tunes as advertisements and as aides memoire, and then there’s Chimes. Chimes is music that plays at Matins and Vespers, and no matter where you are (well, within the small geographic scope of the novel) you have to pay attention. It’s fairly fast-paced; Smaill does a good job of showing the dystopian nature of the world without a whole lot of detail; I found the conclusion satisfyingly dramatic.
On the other hand… there are enormous questions that are never answered about how ‘the world’ got like this (there’s hints but that’s all), whether the entire world is like this or just some area around London, and there are a few plot holes here and there that are glanced over. What I can’t figure out is whether these things matter or not. On balance, I think I can live with those problems, and it’s mostly because of the beauty of the language. If this were a more pedestrian novel I would have more problems with it. The one problem with the language is the use of musical terms. No one does anything quickly or slowly; it’s all piano, lento, tacet… and I don’t even know if some of the words were invented. I have zero musical training so there were times where I was confused about whether we were rushing or going stealthy. Still, I coped. I was a bit sad at about the halfway mark that the novel was so boy-heavy (I hadn’t read the blurb so I actually thought the narrator was a girl, at the start), but by the end I was a bit more content with the gender choices overall.
The novel is written in the first person and in present tense; I feel like I haven’t read a whole lot of present-tense stuff recently, so that was intriguing. Our protag is off to London with a mission from his dying mother, but he has to hurry because he’ll lose his memory of what he’s doing pretty soon. Because everyone does. This is a world where people are just about living Fifty First Dates. They keep ‘bodymemory’ – usually – so they remember how to eat, how to do the manual parts of their job, and so on; and maybe ‘objectmemory’ can help with some specific events… but unless relationships, for instance, are renewed every day, pretty soon those people are gone from your mind. Because of Chimes. The music you can’t not hear.
Simon, of course, is a bit special – he’s got a slightly better memory – and while the whole You’re Special thing might be a bit old, that’s because it’s such a good way of making change happen in a difficult world. Anyway, Simon starts finding out more about his world, thanks to a new friend, and things progress from there. I liked Simon, overall, as a voice for showing the world, but really we don’t find out that much about him – I think as a factor of the first-person narration. That’s not necessarily a problem; you’re enough in his head on a day-by-day basis that I, at least, certainly cared what happened.
The musical aspect is original, at least in my reading experience, and the prose is a delight. For a debut novel I’m even more impressed – and not surprised to discover that Smaill is both a classically trained violinist and a published poet. I hope she gets to publish more books, and I hope this features on the Sir Julius Vogel ballot next year (she’s a Kiwi). You can get it from Fishpond.