Monday, June 13, 2011

Chime, by Franny Billingsley

I bought Chime on the strength of Franny Billingsley's The Folk Keeper, and it didn't disappoint. Chime is gorgeous, lush, creepy, luminous, romantic, terrifying and heartbreaking. Briony, Rose, and Eldric: how could you not want to read their story? (Assuming it's not all fairyland and elves, which it isn't. At all.) Here's the first two lines:
       I've confessed to everything and I'd like to be hanged.
       Now, if you please.

I don't need to say anything else: you must want to read it now. Especially with that cover. And the amazing font in the chapter titles.

Okay, I'll tell you a little more about it. Take equal parts Brothers Grimm (NOT the expurgated versions) and Bronte sisters (mostly Jane Eyre). Throw in a healthy dollop of campfire horror tales. Then wrap in silk and ribbons and take it "into the wild, into the real, into the ooze and muck and the clean, muddy smell of life." Past the Flats, through the Quicks, across the snickleways of the Slough. Hide it in "a tangle of mist and midst" in the middle of the swamp, and then come back and ask, "A person must always keep a secret, mustn't she?"

Oh, and it's a love story.

Briony narrates, Briony who hates herself. Briony who says she deserves to be hanged. Briony who takes care of her twin sister Rose, because Rose can never be left alone, and now that Stepmother is dead there is only Briony, because Father is never home.
Father's silence is not merely the absence of sound. It's a creature with a life of its own. It chokes you. It pinches you small as a grain of rice. it twists in your gut like a worm.
Silence clawed at my throat. It left a taste of burnt matches.
No, our family doesn't talk much. 
The narration is oblique and halting, because Briony's understanding of herself is oblique and halting. Her memories of what happened to Stepmother and to Rose don't match up, but she is certain the terrible things are all her fault, because Briony is a witch. Her anger and jealousy are dangerous because she can call up the Old Ones from the swamp, even if she doesn't intend to. At all costs she must prevent herself from hurting anyone else, particularly Eldric, with his "golden lion's eyes and a great mane of tawny hair," who stirs up more jealousy than ever. And isn't that odd, because Briony is too wicked to be able to love, isn't she?

The swamp is both setting and character, and Billingsley's poetic prose turns delicious every time Briony enters it:
My moonbeam skirts were pale moths, fluttering past the skulls of giant mushrooms. I sank into peat moss and autumn leaves, into the musk-stink of dying cabbage and the splosh of decay.
Voices laughed and ran past me in the shadows. I ran through a tangle of moonlight; I ran into a copper sea. If a body meet a body, comin' thro' the rye.
I was wild, I was wolfgirl. I was light as a moonbeam, my bones were filled with lace. I ran past chiming voices. "Pretty girl love pretty boy."
Chime is a puzzle. You will likely put the pieces together before Briony does, but will you figure it out before Eldric? Rose already knows.

This is a tasty novel, deep and layered, full of secrets: gingerbread with pears poached in red wine topped with cinnamon creme.


  1. I actually hate the cover-- it was turning me off from reading the book. It looks too much like Gossip Girl In Dark Fantasy Land to me. It took not only ALL the MANY glowing reviews, but one reviewer who's opinion I really trusted to say "I don't think the cover fits," before I gave in!

    The thing that I find most fascinating about this book is the psychological aspects-- which I don't see too many people mentioning in reviews, but maybe that's because if you go into it too much it's spoilerish. But I was reading a personal journal entry I wrote right after I read it, in which I go on and on about the issues and story from a psychological standpoint, without actually naming the book or author, and I thought, "Wow, someone reading this would think I just read some kind of serious Issues novel instead of a dark fantasy!" But that's one of the things I like most about fantasy-- it makes reading about the Serious Issues a WHOLE lot more palatable!

  2. "Gossip Girl in Dark Fantasy Land": hee hee hee! You're quite right, and I wouldn't have picked it based on the cover, pretty as it is.

    When you mention the psychological aspect of the book: at the end when she talks about treading new pathways in her brain, it completely reminded me of A Stroke of Insight, by Jill Bolte Taylor: she's a neurologist who had a stroke and described how she recovered from it. Brilliant book.