Seventeen-year-old Briony Larkin begins her narration of Chime (Dial, 2011) with this:
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.
How fantastic of a hook is that? Superfantastic, right? So fantastic that I’m surprised you’re still sitting there. Well, don’t go barreling out your door to the library yet, because it’s not available until March.
As we’ve all been waiting 12 years* for another book by Franny Billingsley, though, another two months isn’t so very long—especially since Chime is so very worth it.
Briony Larkin—younger twin of and caretaker to Rose Larkin, daughter of a clergyman, mourner of a stepmother, beloved of Cecil Trumpington (though she doesn’t reciprocate), resident of the Swampsea—is the bearer of a Dark Secret. Her Secret is a dangerous one—a confession means certain death—but it’s also crucially important. Her confession will save the lives of all the children in the Swampsea.
Chime abounds with magic and mystery, and although Briony tells us:
In a proper story, antagonistic sparks would fly between Eldric and me, sparks that would sweeten the inevitable kiss on page 324. But life doesn’t work that way. I didn’t hate Eldric, which, for me, is about as good as things get.
It has romance. And it’s the best kind of romance, too, a romance between equals that’ll make you laugh and cry and swoon. But that’s not even close to all it’s got.
The characters, even the minor characters, are three-dimensional and fully realized. Billingsley’s prose is beautifully lyrical, musical and evocative, yet the story moves quickly and the dialogue snaps. Reinforcing that unusual dichotomy is Briony herself, who is savagely prickly—yet prone to humor and whimsy—and desperate to be loved. Briony is so guarded that she’s almost folded in upon herself, but at the same time, she’s completely vulnerable. Even as she tells her own story, she tries her damnedest not to be known, both to the reader and to herself. As I tried to unravel her truths from her half-truths and her outright lies, I was reminded again and again of Merricat Blackwood from Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Viking, 1962). Which, for those of you who haven’t read it**, is a huge compliment.
The world-building is flawless, and the folklore and mythology of Swampsea is original, yet familiar, which makes it feel both alien and comfortable. It’s a dangerous place, but a fascinating one. Swampsea is a small town, far enough away from Industry that the Old Ones still manifest and thrive. It’s a town that Could Have Been, and despite the unlikelihood of its ultimate survival—it’s up against Technological Progress, which is Inexorable—I prefer to imagine that it’s still there, hidden around a corner somewhere.
*It’s been 12 years since Franny Billingsley’s criminally unknown The Folk Keeper (Atheneum, 1999) was first published. Twelve years. It’s critically acclaimed, yes. It won both the 2000 Mythopoeic Award for Children’s Literature and the 2000 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Fiction. But as far as the general public goes, it’s still criminally unknown. Let’s change that, shall we?
When she isn't writing Bookshelves of Doom or doing her librarian thing, Leila Roy is probably curled up by the woodstove, reading.