Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Book Review: Chime by Franny Billingsley

Title: Chime
Author: Franny Billingsley
Genre: YA, fantasy

Publisher: Dial
Publishing Date: March 17, 2011
Hardcover: 361 pages

Stand Alone or series: Stand alone

Before Briony's stepmother died, she made sure Briony blamed herself for all the family's hardships. Now Briony has worn her guilt for so long it's become a second skin. She often escapes to the swamp, where she tells stories to the Old Ones, the spirits who haunt the marshes. But only witches can see the Old Ones, and in her village, witches are sentenced to death. Briony lives in fear her secret will be found out, even as she believes she deserves the worst kind of punishment.

Then Eldric comes along with his golden lion eyes and mane of tawny hair. He's as natural as the sun, and treats her as if she's extraordinary. And everything starts to change. As many secrets as Briony has been holding, there are secrets even she doesn't know.

Briony lives in a world of swamps and silences. Living with her twin sister and absent father, Briony's only comfort is her own self-hate. See, Briony's done some pretty awful things and the worst are the secrets that she keeps. These secrets, and the guilt of her actions, have led to a life of disappointment and quiet desperation. But when the interesting and compelling Eldric comes along, bringing vibrance to Briony's dull world, Briony starts to want things she never thought she deserved. As Briony tries to come to terms with who she is and the mistakes she's made, she finds sometimes the hardest thing to do is just let go.
"It's strange how a person can have a distinct distaste for herself, but still she clutches to life."
Sometimes a book has the power to sneak up on me. Usually it isn't until I try to describe the story to a friend that I realize part of the book has stayed with me in that special place only great books can reach, but sometimes it happens with every turn of the page. I start a book with low expectations and yet, inexplicably, I find myself completely surprised. That is exactly what happened with Chime.

I've said many times before I'm not a fan of romance. While I love my characters to have a bit of romantic entanglements, I don't want that to be the main focus of the story. Maybe it's because we're already bombarded with romance driven music, television, movies, commercials, and other forms of media, but I just don't care for it. So when I read the blurb on the book, I had a hard time believing this was going to be a book I'd enjoy. I mean, the summary is pretty much standard romance fodder. And yet, Chime turned out to be so much more than the inevitable triumph of love over impossible odds. While the summary makes it sound like Briony's journey is about Eldric, it's really about learning how love oneself when the world has told you you're worthless.

I often complain that protagonists in YA books are bland, but Briony was anything but. She's a layered and complex character who tries to do what's right even when her heart screams out for something different. She's smart and playful, but slowly being crushed under the belief that she's not a good person and doesn't deserve happiness. Even though Briony's self-hate grated on my nerves, her constant warring with herself made the story for me. We get to watch Briony's self-journey as she tries to learn to love herself and allow herself to be loved. I know that sounds incredibly cheesy, but I really connected with it. Briony is flawed. I can't tell you how incredibly refreshing that is. Eldric was also a refreshing love interest. Instead of being cliched and two-dimensional, Eldric was actually likable. I could see why Briony was drawn to him rather then having to be told that she liked him. They didn't fall in love instantly or swear to be together forever. Instead they actually got to know each other and became friends first. Craziness I know. That's one of the things I really liked about the book in general though, the characters around Briony were fleshed out more than usual. Briony's sister in particular was a fantastic character and it made Briony's world more real for me.
"If you say a word, it leaps out and becomes the truth. I love you. I believe it. I believe I am loveable. How can something as fragile as a word build a whole world?"
In the end though, it was the prose that won me over. There was something appealing and wonderful about Billingsley's writing. The setting was brilliant and it reminded me of Sleepy Hallow (the movie) for some reason. I guess both have that...leached out quality about them. Like the town's happier days have already passed and the people are still clinging on to yesterday. Briony's narrative was also unreliable and full of secrets that kept me glued to the book. The story felt like a new take on old folk tales and I just loved it.
Notable Quotes/ Parts: (Prologue)
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 please 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?

In any event, where does she expect me to begin? The story of a wicked girl has no true beginning. I’d have to begin with the day I was born.

If Eldric were to tell the story, he’d likely begin with himself, on the day he arrived in the Swampsea. That’s where proper stories begin, don’t they, when the handsome stranger arrives and everything goes wrong?

But this isn’t a proper story, and I’m telling you, I ought to be hanged.

The beginning might be kind of clunky, but this book is a real treat. My only complaint is that I had no clear understanding of where or when this story takes place, but I can let it slide.

Rating: 8. Excellent – some laughing and/or crying involved