Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Review: Chime by Franny Billingsley

Cover of Chime, featuring a white girl with platinum blonde hair. She wears an old-fashioned black dress and reclines within a bed of twigs that seem to embrace her.
Briony Larkin is a terrible, horrible person, and she’d like you to hang her right away, please. It's only as much as she deserves.

Why? She’d rather not get into it, seeing as how it’s horribly painful, but she supposes she really should. You need to hang her, but first you’d better understand why.

CHIME [Amazon | Kobo | The Book Depository | Scribd Audio] begins in the early 20th century, presumably before 1914 because nobody mentions the war. Briony is a young witch who lives in Swampsea with her parson father, her neuroatypical twin sister, Rose, and their new lodger, Eldric, whose father has decided it’d be best if his son lives with religious folk following his expulsion from university. Briony used to have a beloved stepmother, too, but she died a few months ago. The coroner ruled it suicide, but Briony is certain Stepmother was murdered.

Not that she can talk about it with anyone. Briony’s life is built of secrets. The secret of Stepmother’s death; of the terrible thing Briony did to Rose; of her relationship with the Old Ones who dwell in the swamp; of her past as a Wolf Girl; of her inability to be a real person, or to love anyone at all.

Briony isn’t a girl. Not really. She’s a witch and a monster and the cause of all her family’s woes.

Except there’s a dramatic difference between what Briony tells us about herself and what we observe in her. Part of it’s a bit of a cheat when you experience the audio instead of the prose edition, though. Had I, a first time prose reader, been charged with imagining Briony’s voice, I’d have taken her early declarations of inhumanity and used them to cast her as a flat speaker; someone who relates the truth without ever fully feeling it. I’m sure my mental delivery would’ve soon shifted in response to other textual clues, but the audiobook delivered a rather different experience. Susan Duerden’s impassioned performance immediately told me that Briony is not only an unreliable narrator (something I’d have assumed anyways, given my well-documented distrust for first person narrators), but also a possessed of deep emotional reserves.

It’s a hell of an auditory hook; a girl who claims to feel nothing, but whose voice tells us she feels everything.

Of course, this impression comes across in the text as well as in Duerden’s performance; it’s just a touch slower to emerge. Briony says she’s a monstrous girl who is incapable of loving anyone, but she clearly cares for Rose, her recollections of Stepmother show great filial devotion, and she quickly fosters an intense friendship with Eldric. When one reads the text, one picks these things out for oneself. When one listens to it, the narrator gives us plenty of warning it’s coming.

Whatever medium you experience the book in, one thing is always clear: Briony has a warped view of who she is. And this is something that was done to her, not a conclusion she arrived at on her own.

It doesn’t take amazing deductive skills to figure out who has led Briony to believe these things about herself, though the culprit’s intentions don’t fully crystalize until quite far into the story. The tension, then, comes from the reader’s desire for Briony to regain control of her own life. We want her to figure it out. We want her to realize she isn’t a ghastly, vile, sister-destroying witch who is incapable of human emotion. And we’ve heard the book is dark, dark, dark, so we have no assurance she’ll actually get there in the end.

Billingsley limns it all in the most gorgeous prose, and with admirable technical skill. I shall say nothing more about it because I want you to watch it unfold your own self.

Speaking of selves, CHIME has made me realize how much of my 2015 reading list involves the perversion of the self; ie, a case where an external force has caused (or attempts to cause) a character to view themselves as something other than what they truly are. Briony is a prime example, of course. She’s been pushed so hard and so cleverly that she’s fully bought into her abuser’s idea of who she is. The same is true of Mildmay, one of the narrators of Sarah Monette’s Doctrine of Labyrinths series, who’s quite convinced he’s an ugly, worthless monster because that’s the only vision his abuser let him see.

Roza, on the other hand, faces great pressure to conform to her captor’s image of her throughout Laura Ruby’s BONE GAP, but she hasn’t yet succumbed when the novel begins. This is also the case with Nathan, the protagonist of Sally Green’s HALF BAD and HALF LIES, though Nathan wobbles closer to the edge as he faces abuse from all sides. And Kyoko, the girl at the heart of Yoshiki Nakamura’s SKIP BEAT, breaks away from an abusive relationship at the very start and spends the rest of the series figuring out how to strike a healthy balance between meeting her own emotional needs and being present for the people she cares about without letting them consume her.

Those are just the most dramatic examples from my current reading list. It’s possible to view the perversion of the self as at least a minor theme behind a great many other works, too; particularly young adult novels, which take place at a time in their characters’ lives when these fictional people are figuring themselves out.

The very nicest thing about Briony’s friendship with Eldric is that he pays attention to who she actually is, not to the mask she’s laid over herself, and to the process she goes through as she figures herself out. She, in turn, does the same for him, though she’s not always as good at putting what she sees into words and is sometimes inclined towards jealousy when others get there before her. It paves the way for them to have something genuine; a connection based on true sight, not the veils that obscure most things in and about Briony’s life. That’s a lovely thing, full stop, and it grows even more interesting when one considers what the fairy lore at the heart of the story has to say about true sight.

I’ll leave it to you to discover whether Briony manages to keep hold of this genuine connection, or to break free from her abuser’s vision of her and forge something genuine in other areas of her life. Suffice it to say, I adored the results. This book is gorgeous and heartfelt and absolutely heartbreaking. I cried for Briony. I’m still crying for her, and I want you to know her, too.

And this doesn't really fit in anywhere, so I'll just tack it on outside the review proper, but I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Tiddy Rex. You know you want to read a book where the protagonist is friends with a small boy named Tiddy Rex, if only because it'll give you an excuse to say Tiddy Rex a couple dozen times before you've finished.

Tiddy Rex.

Tiddy Rex.

Tiddy Rex.

Wasn't that fun?


  1. This sounds awesome, and this was a stellar, thorough review. Also HELLO I am finally reading your blog HOORAY.

  2. God Chime is a good book. Every time I read it, I like it more and more. Well Wished was good, and The Folk Keeper was better, and Chime was the best of all. I have high hopes for Franny Billingsley's future career. The only sad thing is that she only writes one book every -- God, I don't know. Like ten years. I read Well Wished when I was relatively closeish to being the right age for it. And I am already so thirsty for next Chime.

    1. I need to read MOAR FRANNY BILLINGSLEY. Why am I reading so slowly right now, Jenny? I'll never be as speedy as you, but I need to at least get back to my regular speed so I can read more books by wonderful authors.