What is happening to 17-year-old Briony Larkin and the miserable fenside village of Swampsea? Briony is beautiful and intelligent, neglected by her father after the death of her beloved stepmother. Possessed of a supernatural gift that allows her to see and converse with the nature spirits that surround her village, before she died, her stepmother commanded Briony to avoid the swamp where these spirits live lest something terrible happen.
To make an already joyless life considerably worse, Briony is responsible for her difficult twin sister Rose, who, due to a blow to the head when the girls were seven, exhibits symptoms and behaviors similar to those associated with autism spectrum disorder.
Then a handsome boy comes to the village, and with him progress: the swamp is to be drained and Swampsea to become the terminus of a London rail line. As Swampsea struggles to - belately - join the twentieth century, Briony struggles with new roles that she both fears and desires. I'm always looking for neat coming-of-age metaphors, and the advent of the modern age is a good one. Will Briony allow herself to fall in love? Will she learn to control her power? Will she figure out the deceptions that have been perpetrated upon her, leaving her full of frustrated, self-abasing rage?
About that last question - I did, and too early, which left me noticing all the plot machinations that contrive to keep Briony in the dark. Some readers will be bothered by that. Me. That bothers me. Other readers will be enjoying the book so much that they'll hang in there to see how she eventually figures it all out. There's been a flood and a fire before the book even started, so what crisis will precipitate Briony's moment of clarity?
Chime is a real Hollywood-style this-meets-that story. It's The Lair of the White Worm meets Wuthering Heights! With scenes from The Crucible and attempts at the storm-tossed romanticism of The Return of the Native.
Not a bad cocktail if you're mixing something up for a teenage girl, wouldn't you say? And Franny Billingsley (author of my beloved Big Bad Bunny among other books) manages a more-or-less seamless mix. Don't you hate it when somebody tries something like this, but the transitions are totally jarring? I felt this was the major flaw of The Forest of Hands and Teeth - the romance parts butted up against the horror parts awkwardly. Similarly, someone recently attempted a mashup of the Downton Abbey theme with the X-Files theme, but instead of blending the compositions, it just switched back and forth. Disappointing.
Sometimes a mashup results in a new song that is more than the sum of its parts. See: almost all songs by Girl Talk. But sometimes an artist pulls significant pieces from a previous work and not only does the new work pale by comparison - think of Puff Daddy's treacly, overproduced I'll be Watching You, based on Every Breath You Take - but it makes the original piece look bad. I just put myself through I'll Be Watching You - twice - and it made me start thinking about how heavy-handed and monotonous the original song is, how overblown is its chorus. We get it, Sting - sometimes unrequited love is creepy.
(On the other hand, I then pulled up the original song and I broke out in a cold sweat when the first arpeggio came out of my laptop speakers. Man, that song was important to me in 1983.)
Nevertheless. Reading Chime I couldn't help comparing Briony to Heathcliff. Her inability to interpret the actions of others through anything other than her knee-jerk self-flagellation reminded me of Heathcliff's oblivious dickishness, until my irritation at Briony rebounded onto Heathcliff and I ended up more in the Kate Beaton camp than in my customary Kate Bush corner. (References below, just for fun.)
Chime is up against The Cheshire Cheese Cat: A Dickens of a Tale in School Library Journal's Battle of the Books this year. Cheshire Cheese Cat wasn't my wedge of cheddar, but many readers loved it, felt it was robbed when Newbery time came around. And regardless of its plot shenanigans,, most reviewers have raved over Franny Billingsley's use of language in Chime. This is going to be a close call, but I'm putting my money on the Cat.
Media associated with this review:
Kate Beaton's Hark! A Vagrant:
Kate Bush singing the appalling but nonetheless unforgettable Wuthering Heights, from her album The Kick Inside:
Although you may prefer Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon's interpretation. Less shrill, for one thing, although it suffers from an underuse of eyeliner.
BATTLE ON, BATTLERS. SLJ's Battle of the Books begins to rage March 13, when Anya's Ghost flies in the face of the haunting Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart.