Chime by Franny Billingsley

“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 could 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.”

Briony conceals her second sight and forces herself to use her right hand because in Swampsea, witches are hanged, and Briony absolutely, positively, must not die.  Dying, you see, would break her promise: she must always live so she may take care of Rose.  Briony’s life is consumed with care for her identical twin, Rose, in an attempt at penance for a childhood accident that irreparably changed her. However,what is she to do when saving her sister’s life means that Briony must sacrifice her own?

Briony’s scrupulously honest, don’t-pity-me, prickly demeanor does nothing to conceal her vulnerability; she is a multi-dimensional artwork of a narrative persona, relating a chilling tale of secrets, bargains with spirits, and subterfuge. Furthermore, she’s unreliable: readers are unsure exactly what the truth is. Briony hates everything, including herself, and Billingsley’s masterful characterization prevents her from reading as selfish or irritating. You’ll love the distilled gems of bleaks humor like this:  “Skipping meals is terrifically convenient: It gives one lots of time to brood and hate oneself”.

The language itself is another reason to love this story.  In an interview, Franny Billingsley said that she drew inspiration from the wordplay in folk songs and ballads, and definitely adds another layer of appeal to the novel.  Words invert and rhyme, creating an interesting textual parallel for the reader’s changing perceptions of the characters and the story as layer after layer of deception is excoriated.  Adding to the literary complexity of the work is the story’s structure! It’s not difficult to follow, but hearing the tale backwards, from the moment we know Briony is to die, brings a sense of urgency to the story. Finally, even though we begin the story knowing the ending already, Billingsley manages to keep us wondering and worrying about it.

This creepy and enthralling novel was a finalist for the National Book Award last year, amid some controversy.  I found it a combination of delightful elements that are so often honored by the award, including high literary merit.  Furthermore, the romance (yes, there’s romance, but I promise it isn’t offensively saccharine!) is based on equality and mutual respect and tenderness, which is delightful to see in these paranormal books, as they often rely on tired stereotypes of straight relationships.  The one concern I have is one the author herself has also acknowledged, that of the “beauty barrier”.  Books about non-beautiful young women are disappointingly scarce, and this is no different.  Billingsley missed a perfect opportunity to give us a complex and appealing heroine while also affirming the importance of other values besides traditional beauty.

That said, if you love witches and swamps and the feeling you get when you read Jane Eyre, this one’s for you.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://www.frannybillingsley.com

Billingsley, Franny. Chime. New York, Speak, 2011. 361 pp. Ages 14 and up.

If you liked this one, you can rejoice: the author claims she has two related novels she is working on!  While you are waiting, you can check out books like Beauty and Ash and  Castle Waiting (for the feminist graphic-novel antidote to the stereotypical beautiful heroine) and Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyrefor the classic take on creepiness.

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