Anna Smaill’s dystopian adventure story, The Chimes, has perched itself on a shelf inhabited by my favourite books. It sits with Atwood and Byatt and Janet Frame and McEwan and Orwell. And it well and truly holds its own. This young New Zealander has crafted a vision of post-‘Allbreaking’ London, which is poetry and music and quest all in one. Smaill spoke with author and friend Paula Morris about her novel, just a few days before the announcement of the shortlist of the Man Booker Prize.
Smaill is disarmingly articulate. She dances us through the concept of the book, and recreates the setting – an indeterminate future in London where a musical instrument, the carillon, casts a mass amnesia over the bulk population. She describes the city and ‘the under’, the complex of tunnels below ground wherein the protagonist and his pact mudlark for palladium. She tells us about the way music is both breaker and maker of memories, and describes how people can use music to encode a sort of topographical map, by which they might navigate during the course of a day.
It would seem that music, and the order that promotes it, is an oftentimes malevolent force in Smaill’s story. But she tells us it is more Platonic ideal, a striving for order, a weeding out of ‘dischord’, than malevolence per se. That leads Morris to question Smaill’s own relationship with music. Smaill relates her past as a musician and a student of music, her own limitations as a violinist, and her ambivalence about the musical world. She hints, however, that she may make a return to playing, with a different instrument.
Smaill and Morris discuss memory, and the lack of memory, as a very central aspect of the book. Smaill talks about the difficulty of creating first person narrative under such constraints. Simon, her central character, is under the grip of the carillon’s amnesiac chiming, and so has a slippery hold on notions of other characters and events and places. Smaill tells us that, with these conditions in play, she was unable to employ many of the usual tools which help a writer create an idea of character.
Morris asks Smaill about the lexicon of her story – the portmanteaus, neologisms, musical terms and archaic words. Smaill says that many of the words, especially the portmanteaus, came about ‘organically’. There are words, too, where spelling has been chosen to give a word multiple meanings, as with her use of ‘mettle’. She credited Riddley Walker as an inspiration here.
Smaill and Morris also spoke about living in London, and about Smaill’s own process of, once back in New Zealand, trying to remember the city she left so as to finish the novel – a process, Morris notes, that is akin to the straining-to-remember that her characters endure.
Finally, there was talk about Young Adult fiction as a genre, whether The Chimes fits the Young Adult brief, and Smaill’s dismay at the banning of Ted Dawe’s award-winning book for young adults, Into the River. Oh, and she mentioned that she’s creating a new novel, set in Tokyo.
A splendid session. Anna Smaill was all I imagined her to be, and then some. I thoroughly recommend you acquire a copy of her novel.
Attended and reviewed by Elizabeth Morton
Sunday, 13 September at Going West