I've been very hesitant to write a review for Chime by Franny Billingsley because, frankly, I wasn't sure if I "got" what all the fuss was about over this book and I didn't want to sound stupid or dull. I also had the experience of not liking the book for well over half of it and then experiencing an overwhelming sense of loving it as I neared the end. In fact, I reread the ending to check to make sure that it was love, not just infatuation. Yup. Loved the book.
So what is it about Chime that causes the National Book Award committee to make it a finalist and for professional reviewers to give it stars (6 starred reviews at last count) when the book is so confusing in the beginning and such a slow starter? The Kirkus reviewer for Chime said:
Billingsley takes the time to develop a layered narrative adorned with linguistic filigree-she is one of the great prose stylists of the field, moving from one sparklingly unexpected image to the next and salting her story with quicksilver dialogue. She sets the tale in a gently alternate turn-of-the-20th-century England in which Mr. Darwin, Dr. Freud, witches and the Old Ones coexist. Briony, hugely likable despite her dismal self-hatred, is devilishly smart and funny, and readers will root for her with every turn of the page. Delicious.
What I have discovered about the book, as I talk to readers, it that students aren't able to picture this semi-magical, semi-historical setting and aren't patient enough to let those "delicious" prose sweep them away. Which is really a pity because the story is really magical, imaginative, funny, and poignant in turn. Students also have a hard time liking Briony, the main character. I wonder if that is related to the fact that Briony doesn't like herself? The story is also a lot deeper than you would guess by reading the book jacket or looking at the cover. While the plot is part mystery, part fantasy, part romance, part paranormal, and some family drama it revolves around Briony, a girl who is full of self-doubt and guilt. She blames herself for many things including her sister's brain injury and for the illness that has infected the whole town.
Billingsley's narrative is really exquisite. The reviewer for Booklist said about her writing:
"Exploring the powers of guilt and redemption, Billingsley has crafted a dark, chilling yet stunning world. Briony’s many mysteries and occasional sardonic wit make her a force to be reckoned with. Exquisite to the final word.Chime really is a novel "that is both lushly sensual and shivery." -SLJ