304 pages, £8.99 pb, ISBN: 1444794523
Anna Smaill’s first novel, long-listed for the 2015 Booker Prize and the NZ Book Circle’s choice for October, is a fantasy on the theme of cataclysm, in which modern England has returned to a medieval level of authoritarian existence, controlled by a self-appointed brotherhood, its brutal poliss, and the Carillon, a musical construction which marks the hours of daily life.
A young man, Simon, arrives in London by cart. Remnants of more recent life remain – concrete, jeans, chocolate in gold and purple wrappings, tea-drinking – but everyday life has been reduced to bartering in the markets, mudlarking by the Thames, foraging for food, travelling on foot – and mud. Memories have been destroyed, written language has been suppressed, and there is a pervading sense of fear. ‘Before’ is blasphony. The church is a crosshouse, and written inscriptions on gravestones are old code, which people can no longer read. Simon has a bag of ‘objectmemories’, snatches of tunes, and a nagging sense of a mission. Communication is through tunes sung and revisited, and the language of the novel uses musical terms: lento, presto, subito, tacet. Simon and the gang of friends he makes, led by Lucien, move cautiously around London through underground tunnels or under cover of darkness, to avoid the poliss. They are guided by the complex system of tunes they sing to each other. The final Chimes of the day, Vespers, cause memory to fail, sometimes destroying bodies as well as minds; and people struggle to remember further back than the day before.
The language of the novel takes some risks with its readers, in its use of Italian musical terms and related word-coinings, and eventually the greater challenge of musical theory, harmony, transposition, and intervals. In a world in which language has been replaced by music, there is an interesting beginning of an exploration of the relationship between written language, long-term memory and culture; and the suppression of written language as a means of social control.
The narrative moves along at an intriguing pace, and the relationships between the young members of the gang are poignant, though the dialogue is sometimes rather wooden. This is a cleverly crafted novel, which rewards thoughtful reading. As Simon and Lucien’s quest reaches its climax, and the mathematical perfection of music is unpicked, the novel becomes a plea for the tolerance of discord, difference, and even mess.