Now, if you please.
I don't mean to be difficult, but I can't bear to tell my story. I can't relive those memories – the touch of the Dand Hand, the smell of eel, the gulp and swallow of the swamp.
How can you possibly think me innocent? Don't let my face fool you; it tells the worst lies. A girl can have the face of an angel but have a horrid sort of heart.
I know you believe you're giving me a chance – or, rather, it's the Chime Child giving me the chance. She's desperate, of course, not to hang an innocent girl again, but please believe me: Nothing in my story will absolve me of guilt. It will only prove what I've already told you, which is that I'm wicked. (p. 1)
Ever read a book that had a powerful first-person narrator, one who promised mysteries and deceptions from the very first page? A story that contains hidden folk legends, threats of death due to being something alien to the surrounding population? And despite it being "good" in terms of prose presentation, characterization, and even plot, it just doesn't "click" for you? If so, you might understand my initial reaction while reading Franny Billingsley's Chime.
Chime is set in a remote village/swamp region, the Swampsea. Young Briony, who learns she can see the Old Ones (akin to the Brownies of Celtic legend), believes that she is evil, that she has caused her stepmother's death and her sister's incapacitation. She worries that the secret she is hiding, that she is a witch, will lead to her death. Therefore she throws up protective barriers, both physical (removing herself from the hum-drum of village life) and emotional (refusing to become close to others). This changes with a leonine man-child, Eldric, appears and he begins to assault those barriers that she has cast up between her thoughts and her emotions.
On the surface, such a tale can either be trite, treacly rehashing of romantic tales or it can be a moving, emotionally charged work despite (because of?) these elements. For the most part, Billingsley avoids creating an Edward Cullenesque male lead that sucks (pun intended) the soul out of each scene. There is a charming naivety about them and how the two grow closer to one another, yet it never completely goes off the rails into the realm of smothering romance.
Yet despite Billingsley's obvious talents as a writer, Chime just did not appeal to me as a reader. This is not an indictment of Billingsley or her story, but rather an admission that some stories just will not appeal to certain readers. Having read several earnest socio-historical books just prior to reading Chime, it was jarring to read a fantasy/suspense/romance story, even one that is as well-written as Billingsley's. I found myself losing my focus while reading it, craving something else, ultimately forcing myself to soldier on in order to complete writing reviews of the five shortlisted titles in the Young People's Literature category. This is not fair to the novel, but yet in reviewing the novel, this sense of disconnect has to be noted.
Despite this estrangement between text and reader, most other readers are likely to find Chime a charming read. As noted above, its prose is a notch above what might be expected in this subgenre of YA literature. The characterizations are likely appealing to most and the plot flows swiftly towards a conclusion that will be satisfying to many readers. Unfortunately, I cannot number myself among the satisfied readers and it is with some regret that I consider Chime to be out of step with the other National Book Award finalists, as their narratives and stories were much more to my liking, as well as most of them being strong narratives in their own right.