Review of Chime by Franny Billingsley (2012)
On its surface, Chime is a novel set in early 20th century England, a time when belief in witches and spirits dominated the lives of many people. The heroine, a 17 year old girl called Briony, is a compassionate, generous person who selflessly cares for her brain-injured twin sister and cared for her stepmother before that woman’s death. Briony is an athletic, sensitive girl who has spent her life exploring the wilds of the swamp next to which she lives; her nature-knowing and -loving persona is Wolfgirl. Tragically, in total contrast to her loving, powerful exterior, Briony secretly hates herself and believes herself to be a bad witch, incapable of love and damaging to those closest to her.
Billingsley writes with sensuous perfection, her words creating scenes that are tangible and alive. She exposes the interior lives of her characters with exquisite empathy. It is a pleasure to feast on her words. This book can be enjoyed literally, as a tale of the past, but I also saw it as a book about a child with attachment problems and a vivid guide toward the healing of those injuries. Briony’s mother died giving birth to the girls, hence the lack of the initial attachment to a mother that all babies need. The only cliched element to the story is that Briony’s stepmother is wicked-- why must the fault always lie with women? She is the one who lies to Briony, telling Briony that she (Briony) is a witch, responsible for her sister’s mental deficits and her stepmother’s fatal illness, feeding into the doubts about self that a child without a deep, loving attachment to an initial caregiver is prone to accepting about herself.
The vehicle toward Briony’s healing and finally seeing her true, beautiful self is a boy, Eldric. Thankfully, Eldric and Briony develop an energetic, playful, supportive friendship, partly expressed through a Brotherhood Club the two of them form. Eldric honors the Wolfgirl in Briony, and his love (not presented as romantic, except in a couple of passing scenes, until near the end of the book) for her is the mirror in which she begins to see her true self. The attachment elements of the book become very explicit near the end. Briony talks often about “lay[ing] down new brain paths” as she works on liking herself. This is the exact language of neuroscientists today who talk about changing the brains of people who have suffered from childhood trauma and, thereby, have damaged self-images. The brain needs to be retrained; these people need to learn to trust humans again; they need to learn to love themselves.
Chime is a powerful novel about attachment, cleverly disguised in an engaging story with intriguing and beautifully human, imperfect characters. I wonder if it could serve as a way for teenagers with attachment problems to understand themselves better?