This wasn’t an easy read, but it was an enjoyable one. It was the other half of a 2 for 1 from Waterstones (the other was Jon Ronson’s excellent book on shaming) so I got it on the strength of the blurb rather then reputation.
It’s going to be hard to describe this book without giving away key plot points but I’ll give it a shot. The story is set in a post apocalyptic London which is a well-worn cliche but Smaill does interesting things with it. People exist in a state of musically-induced amnesia. Memories are reset during a daily event called Chimes, an almost devotional ceremony that draws on liturgical language and imagery where inescapable music seems to cover the whole country. The rare ability to remember is treated as a kind of witchcraft which adds the medieval feel.
It’s a disorienting world. Smaill writes in a way where day to day events are vivid but anything relating to the past is ambiguous and feels fragile even as Simon, the main character, gradually pieces together the past from the fragments around him. It’s his gradual awaking to his ability to remember and the reason that he finds himself away from his family in London that drives the book.
I’ve never had to draw on my ancient Grade 5 music theory for a novel before. Smaill is a violinist and music plays a central role in how the characters remember crucial information like routes and learned expertise. As a result, the text is littered with Latinate phrases. Events happen subbito and characters remain tacet. Sound and silence are almost characters in their own right. This was quite disconcerting initially and made it hard work to follow at times but after a while you become attuned to it and it has it’s own internal logic.
I did find it stretched credulity to breaking point at times. How would a society function if memory and consequently identity, reset every 24 hours? Smaill fills most of the gaps and after a while I found myself going with the flow, willingly suspending disbelief.
One thing that resonated with me strongly was the use of objects as a way of retaining a link to the past. Characters carry round collections of keepsakes connected to past events and even if the memory they evoke has faded, the fact of their existence helps people keep a sense of self. Those that lose these objects become memorylost, stuck in a permanent catatonic state like the victims of the spectres in Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials books.
It resonated because one of the warm-up activities I ask people to do on my storytelling workshops is to find a random object they’ve brought with them, a set of keys, lipstick, ticket stub etc, and use it to explain something about themselves. Usually people talk about an event that’s connected to the object and that pens up a conversation about something more fundamental. It’s a bit of a game but it’s a great way in to looking at the art of storytelling and the link between narrative and identity.
Smaill puts this at the heart of her own story which, like all the best sci-fi, makes it a parable for something more important than the familiar setting suggests.
You can read the Guardian’s review of it here.