The pale lady

Anna Smaill

Anna Smaill’s novel The Chimes is set in London in the near future, in a world where some great catastrophe has reduced the inhabitants to a more medieval lifestyle. The scene is not so far removed from Mad Max, except that the citizens ride wagons instead of drive cars, and the precious substance is not oil, but palladium, which hunters of the stuff can somehow “hear”, and which is used by an Orwellian entity called The Order in their giant carillon that facilitates a form of thought control. Writing is banned (“words are not to be trusted”), and music has somewhat replaced it as a method for “remembering” when memory has disappeared also (as, it seems, a consequence of the catastrophe). Smaill seems to have read Bruce Chatwin’s account of aboriginal songlines as a way of negotiating the landscape.

Explanations for all this are a little thin on the ground, and the novel becomes formulaic at the end. But two things stand out, and relate to Smaill being both a poet and a musician. One is Smaill’s use of spelling and nomenclature, which in humorous fashion shows how words can distort over time. “Mettle” is metal, palladium is “the pale lady”, “blasphony” is any thinking that goes against the musically-inclined Order (particularly nice, that one). And because this society is so saturated with music, its inhabitants are always using musical metaphors  – people move “lento” or “presto”, etc. – another thoughtful touch.



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