Chime by Franny Billingsley
Reviewed by Hallie O'Donovan
05 August 2011
Near the end of Franny Billingsley's Chime, the phrase "word magic" is used. Of course all novels are a form of word magic, but Chime is a book which uses language—plays with it, shows its power, and has it at its heart—in a way I found reminiscent of Diana Wynne Jones and Frances Hardinge.
Chime opens with its narrator, Briony, on trial and asking to be hanged, as telling her story won’t absolve her of anything. If it were a "proper story," she says, it would begin with the arrival of the handsome stranger, Eldric, in the Swampsea. The fact that the story she goes on to tell does begin with Briony and her family awaiting the arrival of Eldric by barge is one of many indications of Briony's unreliability as a narrator, a point to which I will return, and also one of many plays on just what kind of story she's telling.
Briony is seventeen at the time the story begins, living with her twin sister Rose and her father, the rector of the small village of Swanton in the area known as the Swampsea. Her mother died when she and Rose were born, and their stepmother died of arsenic poisoning just over two months before the story's start. The swamp behind the Parsonage is a place Briony used to know well; however, before she died, her stepmother made Briony promise to stay away from it and the supernatural creatures, the Old Ones, living there. Eldric's father has come to the area to drain the swamp, in part to allow the railway line from London to be extended past their village. Eldric joins his father in Swanton after having been expelled from university, bringing with him the hum of London, "strung with electric wires and brilliant with switch-on lamps" (p. 21).
Briony fears that Rose has contracted the fatal swamp cough, and ghost-children tell her that the Boggy Mun, the ancient king of the swamp, has sent the cough to the town in retaliation for the draining of the swamp. To save Rose, Briony must find a way to stop work on the swamp, but must do so without telling anyone what she has discovered, as revealing that she can hear the ghost-children and the Boggy Mun would expose her as a witch.
The setting could almost be a real English village in the early 1900s, but there are small details that indicate that this isn't a book in which fantastic elements exist in a real world historical setting. For all the talk about the arrival of the railway line connecting Swanton with London, this small town also has its own courthouse and gallows—often used to hang witches. Eldric gets a beautiful red car, a fitting symbol of advancing technology, but when someone is tried for witchcraft the Chime Child has to take part, as she is the only person who can communicate with the Old Ones. The library in Briony's house used to hold the novels of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, but the monarch is said to be Queen Anne. It was only on rereading that I even noticed this, and saw that this was a history that diverges in some way from our own. No exact date is ever given, but Briony indicates that it is the second decade of the twentieth century, and yet there is no mention of World War I.
The world of Chime is thus both almost the real world of Britain and the older, darker England of ballad and legend. Eldric in particular brings with him the excitement of new technologies and modernity—a lovely example being the paperclips he shows an admiring Briony, and out of which he makes tiny sculptures. His father is bringing "progress" to the Swampsea by opening it to the world beyond. The world of the swamp, in contrast, is linked in many ways to the violent ballads Briony has grown up with, like "Lord Randal," whose sweetheart poisons his eel broth for no particular reason. It's also a contained, even constrained world, and one that seems to offer Briony no hope of a future, unless it's death on the gallows. One of the many pleasures I found in the book is the way Billingsley resists the obvious oppositions between these two worlds. Eldric isn't at all skeptical of the supernatural creatures of the swamp, for example, nor too arrogant to take the precautions necessary in it, such as carrying a Bible Ball when entering it. Nor does immersion in the world of the swamp mean a distrust or rejection of progress and technology, as seen when Briony falls in love with Eldric's new car.
Briony's startling request to be hanged, with which the book opens, is unexplained beyond her claim that she's wicked. We soon learn in the story proper that Briony believes she's wicked because she's a witch, and a witch who has caused Rose to be brain-damaged and broken her stepmother's spine in separate fits of jealousy—one who is dangerous, and must never forget to hate herself for what she's done and what she is. When she forgets to hate herself, she forgets to look after Rose, despite repeated promises to her stepmother that she will always do so. When she goes into the swamp, her stepmother has told her, she's especially dangerous. When she's together with any of the Old Ones it’s an explosive mix, even if the Old One is as anxious to please as the timid Brownie who smells of apple and mint.
Though Briony is an unreliable narrator, the reader is given enough hints to figure out what Briony, with all her intelligence, cannot. Briony's obvious unreliability serves to alert us to the two major errors in her thinking: that she's a wicked person, whose wickedness can only be controlled by strict obedience to the rules given by her stepmother; and that it's a good thing she burned all her stories in the library fire, because they were "simply awful." Although the two strands of the story formed by Briony's errors are tightly interwoven in the novel, it's worth examining them separately to see how they work.
The first, Briony's belief in her own wickedness, is in a wider sense the strand that deals with her relationships, initially those with her family. It was the complex treatment of fantasy and family dynamics, and the linking of the two, that first reminded me of Jones and Hardinge. Briony's relationship with Rose in particular was quite reminiscent of the brilliant depiction of Hathin and Arilou's relationship in Hardinge's Gullstruck Island. Rose would be an exasperating responsibility for any 17 or 18 year old, with her tendency to scream (in the note of B flat) when she doesn't get her way, her insistence of having things just so and her limited understanding of others' emotions. But the burden is intensified, and Briony's real affection for Rose is poisoned by guilt over her memory of calling the wind that blew Rose off a swing to hit her head on a rock. This is made even worse by her stepmother's insistence that they must never tell her father what Briony has done, as he would turn her over to be tried as a witch.
Eldric and Briony become good friends, despite her initial claim that not hating him is as good as it gets for her. Eldric is a delightful character, happy to share lessons with Briony while expecting her to outshine him in them all, teaching her boxing, and recognizing her as "the Amazon of the Swampsea" (p. 358). The disconnect between Briony's feelings and what she believes about herself seen in her relationship with Rose is also apparent in her friendship with Eldric, which might be different if only she were a "regular girl," or could love anyone—if only she weren't a witch.
For the protagonists of many children's and YA fantasies, the discovery of their supernatural powers parallels or even causes their coming into their own in the real world. However, Briony's abilities to communicate with the Old Ones, which is the basis of her belief that she's wicked, lead to a horrible constriction of her freedom. As well as her need to stay away from the swamp and avoid the Old Ones, she must always hide her thoughts and feelings for fear of being discovered as a witch. The need to hide her ability to communicate with the Old Ones is made no easier by what they say to her. All, except the terrifying Dead Hand, which doesn't speak, ask her to again tell stories.
It's not just the Old Ones asking her to resume her storytelling either. Rose also repeatedly asks it, despite being told again and again that all Briony's stories burned in the library. Even her stepmother had urged her to write.
Stepmother encouraged me in everything I loved. I used to tramp about the swamp, and I wrote lots of stupid stories. She encouraged my writing, in particular, which was kind, for now I realize that my stories were simply awful. What a relief they burnt to cinders and no one will ever read them. (p. 17)
The number of people asking her to tell stories is one of many indications that Briony might be as wrong about her writing skills as she is about her wickedness. Another indication can be seen in the way she constantly plays with language in her narrative—words flowing into other words as fluidly as the winding paths flow through the swamp. This highlighted linguistic play may at times be a bit too obvious for some readers, as a fairly typical example may show: "The Boggy Mun came just on time. He came in the mist, in the midst of his long beard. He came in a tangle of mist and midst" (p. 195). I occasionally found the relentlessness of Briony's wordplay and self-addressed narrative slightly excessive, but these small stretches are always followed by a flash of Briony's caustic wit, an understated touch of poignancy or of real horror. Even when the story is very dark, Briony's voice is nicely sardonic. On one occasion, for example, she fights with a local boy (and beats him handily, although he’s "big as a man") for singing a song about "Daftie Rosie," and Eldric cleans her up and invites her to tell him why she'd done it:
Eldric gave me a choice, and it was this that made me want to tell him everything.
I'd never met anyone I'd wanted to tell. I wouldn't, of course, but the thought was comforting.
Comforting in a suicidal sort of way. (pp.108-9)
Yet another indication of Briony's skill as a writer is her awareness of narrative conventions—often shown in her contrasting of her history with a "proper story." As she says, stories try to create meaning, but she feels her life has none. Occasionally she compares them:
Life and stories are alike in one way: They are full of hollows. The king and queen have no children. They have a child hollow. The girl has a wicked stepmother. She has a mother hollow.
In a story, a baby comes along to fill the child hollow. But in life, the hollows continue empty. One sister continues lonely and unloved; the other coughs behind the door. I sat in the hall. I waited. Father returned from the Alehouse. I waited. He sat before the fire in the parlor. I waited.
Sometimes, of course, the sister's the wicked one, not the stepmother. (p. 160)
Later in the book, when the beautiful Leanne arrives, entrancing Eldric, Briony slowly comes to realize that her distrust of Leanne is more than just the familiar jealousy. She has to get Eldric to tell her about Leanne so she can write it, because "In the days when I used to write, I was sometimes able to write myself into knowing something. Or, rather, uncovering something I already knew" (p. 259). The "word magic" which appears late in the book is a very effective figure of speech, which, like the narrative of the whole novel, is highly layered. Much like Sophie in Jones's Howl's Moving Castle, Briony has strengthened the magic used against her by talking the spell on herself. What could be a rather banal representation of the Inner Critic’s voice so familiar to many of us, becomes instead a powerful image of language used in a self-destructive manner. But word magic is also the magic of language, storytelling, and finding meaning through story. And more literally, the stories Briony used to tell were about magic, as they told of the Old Ones, those supernatural beings who are, she knows, eventually going to disappear from the world, and are unable to tell their own stories.
Returning to the opening chapter, when Briony protests having to tell her story, she says, "The story of a wicked girl has no true beginning" (p. 1). On my second reading of Chime, I took much pleasure from realizing how tricky the word magic in that line is: it's true in many ways, but not in the one it initially suggests. Even after many hours spent searching for quotations and checking details, I kept coming across lines or phrases like that, which unexpectedly revealed layers of meanings. A story like Chime doesn't have to have a true ending any more than a true beginning, when revisiting it is so rewarding.