Chime by Franny Billingsley

This was such an excellent book. After reading the Book Smuggler’s review, I knew that I would probably love this book as much as they did too, and I’m not surprised to find that I was right, and now I want to read everything else the author wrote, and soon.

Briony is a witch. Not only that, but she is extremely wicked and deserves to be hanged. She informs the readers right at the beginning that this is who she is. Because she is a witch and wicked, she is responsible for her stepmother’s death, her sister Rose’s mental illness, and a host of other wrongs. Her powers come from the swamp and the Old Ones who live there, and she has promised Stepmother never to set foot there again, lest she be the cause of more suffering and death. When an intriguing young man by the name of Eldric begins living with Briony’s family, her fascination with him leads to the development of a friendship that prompts Briony to ask questions about whether she really is as wicked as she believes and whether or not she is capable of being a force for good.

The most distinguishing feature of the book is the writing and language used, both of which I loved. It’s seemingly straightforward, but then it twists slightly, in a sort of quirky shape that reflects the out-of-shape nature of Briony’s thoughts and the landscape itself. Everything about the language was so evocative and conjured up a modern day world overlaid with a richer, more magical one that not everyone can fully see. An example is how, at times, the language reflects the atmosphere and nature of the swamp, such as the abundance of words beginning with the letter “s”. While I liked the English countryside location for the swamp, a small part of me was wondering how awesome and different this story would have been if it had taken place in the American Southeast, like in the Everglades. The town atmosphere and collective thought-process would have been changed completely, but so many writers have written great horror stories in American swamps that I couldn’t help but be a little curious. In addition, I loved the swamp mythos the author created and all of the different types of Old Ones and spirits, particularly the names they had, such as the Boggy Mun and Mucky Face.

Briony was a wonderful protagonist and her first-person point of view was a joy to read. She believes deep down that she is a witch, capable of doing nothing but evil, but still she has sworn to look after and care for her twin sister Rose, whose mental illness Briony believes she is the cause of. Threaded throughout Briony’s story is her complicated relationship to her deceased Stepmother, the one who first told her that she was a witch. While there isn’t much of an overarching plot, Briony’s struggle to come into her own and consider herself capable of love and worth loving was great all on its own. There were a couple of places where it got a bit tiresome to hear her repeatedly saying that she was a witch and therefore wicked, and look at how wicked she was, but for the most part, it was done well. No matter that she thinks she’s wicked, she still has a sense of superiority over those whom she deems not worth her time. Even as she presents a pleasant, polite face to the world, underneath she’s teeming with all sorts of sharp, sarcastic observations and retorts to everything that’s going around her. She’s incredibly smart and she knows it, but her deep-seated belief in her own wickedness causes her maintain a distant, emotionless front she believes is necessary, lest she be discovered and hanged.

I also really liked Rose, who seemingly has the mind of a child and has practices and statements that no one really understands, but still manages to see and reveal some terrific things. Even though it is Briony who looks after Rose, Rose’s love for Briony shines through strongly as well. She was strong in her own way, and I admired it a good deal.

Another wonderful thing about this book is the relationship between Briony and Eldric, the new boy who comes into town at the book’s beginning. Right away, Briony compares his looks and energy to that of a lion, and she slowly begins to trust him and they become great friends. This isn’t really a spoiler, because it’s kind of really obvious, but they fall in love. What makes this budding love so wonderful to read about is that it is Done Right. The two first become friends, found a secret brotherhood for the honor of all “bad boys” everywhere, and Briony and Eldric take their time falling in love over the course of the entire year. In short, their relationship and how it progressed was realistic and deliciously sweet to read about. At the end when Briony explains to Eldric how and why she loves him… that resonated so much with me that it almost made cry, if I cried from happiness, which I don’t.

If the writing and characters hadn’t already won my heart, the story also contained many meta asides about the power of stories (which, as we all know, is my kryptonite). The Old Ones and the creatures in the swamp depend on Briony for writing their stories and Briony constantly refers to how the situation would have gone if it had been a story, but stories are never like they are in real life, many tend not to reveal the messy and ugly parts that real life is so full of. Also, a huge part of this book is the stories we tell about ourselves and that others tell about ourselves that shape who we are. Stepmother managed to rewrite Briony entirely and thoroughly altered her story. The ending shows Briony struggling to destroy those brain paths and rewrite new ones, using different thoughts and words she would never have said or described herself with before. I loved that, because I identified with it so much. Looking back now, I can see how many of the statements and sentiments I heard repeated over and over again, even if not directed at me specifically, shaped who I became and who I am now, as I’ve either kept them or realized they didn’t fit and so discarded them.

However, one aspect I did not like was that the two main ”villains”, Stepmother and Leanne were, in my opinion, one-dimensional with regards to their evil deeds. All of the male characters that acted abominably were three-dimensional characters whose behavior, while not excused, was explained and given motivation for. Stepmother and Leanne, on the other hand, are Old Ones and are portrayed as seductresses who are believed to woo only (artistic) men in order to feed on their talents. As a result, their “evildoing” is a result of their nature, and nothing else. Stepmother, in particular, feels like she’d fit in quite well in a traditional fairy tale, where wicked stepmothers are abundant. My issue isn’t that Stepmother and Leanne are “evil” or female, but I can’t help but think about how their characters fit in with a larger tradition of having EEEEEvil women, particularly stepmothers, be scheming, seductive sirens who use their beauty and sexual allure to pray on men and children that aren’t their own.

Aside from that issue, Chime is a truly excellent book. I will admit, it’s not for everyone. Some might be turned off by the writing style, some by Briony herself. She’s definitely not the easiest person to like. Still, this really is a beautiful book, and if anyone is even slightly intrigued, I urge you to find a copy of the book and read it. When I finished it, I hugged the book to my chest and silently thanked the author so much for giving me a story that was a joy to read, a protagonist I could invest in, and a romantic couple that I could actually believe in. What more could I ask for?

Published in: on June 7, 2011 at 10:01 PM  Leave a Comment  

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