Review posted June 12, 2011.
Dial Books, 2011. 361 pages.
2011 National Book Award Finalist
2011 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #3 Teen Fantasy Fiction
Full disclosure: I consider the author, Franny Billingsley, a friend, because we attended the same fabulous writers' conference in Paris in 2005, so I definitely was predisposed to like this book. However, I was predisposed to like her then because I liked her books so much, so it's kind of a circular bias -- which all started because she's an outstanding writer.
Though a little way into Chime, I might have quit, because I'm not a fan of dark fantasy, and this book definitely gets dark. However, I was extremely glad I didn't quit, because by the end I thought this book a masterpiece.
At the start of the book, Briony hates herself, which makes it a little harder for the reader to like her. Here's how she begins:
I've confessed to everything and I'd like to be hanged.
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 Dead 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 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.
Can't the Chime Child take my word for it?
At the start of this story, you suspect it's a historical novel set in a superstitious time when witches were hanged. We're sure Briony must not be a witch and this must be a story of how she was falsely accused.
The setting fits. Briony's father is a clergyman in the Swampsea. Her twin sister, Rose, has something wrong with her so that she still acts like a child. Early on, Rose runs into the swamp while Bryony is talking to their new lodger, the handsome Eldric. They set out looking for her, being sure to bring a Bible Ball -- a piece of paper with a Scripture written on it. We assume it's a quaint superstition.
But right away, Briony hears the Old Ones of the swamp calling to her. She has the second sight. That's how she knows she's a witch.
I tried to disbelieve Stepmother when she told me I'm a witch. I knew she was right, yet I tried to make a case for myself, pecking at the proof Stepmother offered -- pecking at it, turning it over, saying it didn't exist. Then pecking at another bit, and another, until Stepmother took pity on me. If I wasn't a witch, she asked, how else was it that I had the second sight?
Later, when they go into the swamp again, Eldric's tutor doesn't bring a Bible Ball -- and sure enough, he gets lured into the Quicks and swallowed by the swamp. We realize that all the "superstitions" Briony's been talking about -- Mucky Face, the Brownie, the Boggy Mun, and hearing ghosts -- It's all real, and she can see them.
There's also a mystery. Two months and three days before the start of this story, Briony and Rose's Stepmother died. Right away Briony tells us there's something more to that death:
But the villagers are wrong about Stepmother, and so is Father. She would never kill herself. I'm the one who knew her best, and I know this: Stepmother was hungry for life.
I'm sure this is a book that will get better with each rereading. The author feeds you the details slowly, and your curiosity builds. How did Stepmother die? Is Briony a witch? What caused the fire in their library? Can Briony get the Boggy Mun to stop the Swamp Cough that's killing Rose?
Yes, the story starts out dark and sinister, but I love the beautiful way it all ends up, and all the different threads that come together. I'd better say no more than that! This is a book well worth reading and rereading. This is a fantasy novel, true, but it doesn't read quite like any other.