The Mountains of Instead

Championing fiction as an escape from pandemics, politics and bad TV.

Come To My Arms, My Beamish Boy (Review: Chime by Franny Billingsley)

Franny Billingsley
Bloomsbury 2011

Briony is a wicked girl, of this she is certain. Her ability to see the strange creatures in the swamp surrounding her home and her tendency to favour her wicked left hand would have had her convinced that she was a witch even without evidence of many her wicked deeds confronting her daily. However, being a witch isn't really the done thing for a clergyman's daughter, what with the evil and the possibility of hanging and such, so Briony keeps her wickedness under wraps and resigns herself to a life lacking in feeling (witches don't feel, of course – they're too wicked) yet full of care. Things aren't going too badly until the enigmatic (not to mention handsome) Eldric appears, tempting Briony back to the swamplands she so loves, and the imagination she has deserted for fear of her own abilities. As she is quick to point out, it's all hugely unlikely to end well...

Briony is a singularly unique protagonist – I've rarely read such a curious character, nor a more compelling one. The objectivity with which she tells her strange story is remote without ever seeming cold and when her objectivity fails her, often in relation to her beloved swamp, a girl full of vim, vigour and joie de vive is glimpsed. Briony, of course, is quick to renounce that side of herself mainly consigning such character traits to her general witchified wickedness. However, her growing friendship with Eldric brings out more of what she refers to as her wolfgirl and it's hard not to share in her exhilaration at being set free from her previously rather austere existence.

Eldric himself is another fascinating character. Briony often refers to him as a man-boy and this description is apt. He swings from utter irresponsibility to complete kindness and care to anger to loss to love and the scenes with him and Briony both present give Chime it's beating and vital heart. Briony's twin sister Rose makes up the inner cast of the novel it is clear instantly that Rose is somewhat different. She Bartleby's around the place, preferencing the actions of herself and those around her as she sees fit, screeching at sudden change, obsessing over the village fire station and admiring her own exceptional eye for colour. She's a wonderful character – something that is achieved without the difficulties of her particular condition (which in a contemporary times would, I suspect, be written as an Autistic Spectrum Disorder) being lightened nor compromised.

The world in which these characters exist seems to be Victorian England – but it is an England where the supernatural is respected and feared, with the Old Ones being acknowledged and witches regularly hanged. Oddly, this works well, never resulting in the incongruity that could so well have arisen. The plot of Chime is at once extremely simple and highly complex with duel stories running through the narrative. Primarily, the book focuses on the mysterious death of Briony's Stepmother and the odd illnesses that have plagued the household before and since but a secondary plot runs concurrently, surrounding the future of the Swamp and it's Old Ones – the strange and often frightening creatures that abide therein. Both story lines, while well drawn, mainly serve as a backdrop to Briony's own gradual and often painful self-realisation.

Mainly, though, the strength of Chime is in the extraordinary writing. Franny Billingsley is clearly a writer who loves language and this is reflected in the musical, almost non-nonsensical words and phrasing that leap and fizzle from the pages of this title. Fans of Carroll's Jabberwocky would be wise to seek this out, as Billingsley plays with language in a similarly bizarre, enticing, lyrical way:

Hurrah for the smell of gravy, all blood and butter and yum!
Hurrah for the smell of pork, all sizzle and dark and chomp!
Hurrah for a snickly boy, all round and grubby and snug!”

Writing like this is an absolute joy to read for anyone who is fascinated in the teasing and pulling of words and each character possesses unique but equally beautiful turns of phrase. If, towards the end, the plot becomes ever so slightly lost under the weight of this mesmerising language it doesn't lessen the effect of the story as a whole – rather gives depth to an already addictive world. Chime is a book that has taken anciently old ideas and woven them into a world made original not only by the strength of it's characters but by the beauty of truly accomplished and original writing. Highly recommended to anyone who loves a good story and particularly to those who long for a completely immersive experience in the words they are reading.

Chime is available now. Thank you to Bloomsbury for sending me this title to review.


Lauren said…
This sounds realy exciting to read! I'd seen the cover posted around and had no real idea of what kind of story it held inside, but it sounds like something realy different and I love that.

Also, as a left-hander, I find it totally thrilling that in the old days I might have been viewed with suspicion for it. :D
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