Recent Reading: CHIME by Franny Billingsley

So, CHIME. What do you think of this cover? I think it’s beautiful and evocative:


I hate the green cover on Amazon:


I think one reason I got this in paper is that I loved the cover. If I’d only been able to get the one with the green cover, I’d have gotten this one in Kindle format.

The cover’s not why I’m keeping the book rather than giving it away, though. I’m keeping the book because it’s so technically impressive. It was a National Book Award finalist and I can certainly see why.


“I want to go home.” My sister turned from the river and closed her eyes, as though she could wish away the river, and the barge on the river, and Eldric on the barge. But life doesn’t work that way, more’s the pity.

“We can’t leave now,” said Father. “It would hurt Eldric’s feelings, don’t you see?”

But Rose didn’t see. She never saw, not about feelings. “I want to go home.”

Villagers thronged the riverside, but they gave us plenty of room. I’d forgotten that, forgotten how they left a cushion of air around the clergyman and his porcelain daughters. We’d always be outsiders, even though Father’s spent twenty years in the Swampsea and Rose and I have spent seventeen. we’ve never been anywhere else.

“One hundred and eighty-three steps until home,” said Rose.


I squeezed a peek at Eldric as he and Mr Clayborne shook hands. Father was wrong, of course. Eldric wasn’t handsome, not in a Greek statue kind of way, not like Cecil Trumpington, who wants to marry me. Well, Cecil actually wants to marry the idea of me. He wants a girl with ivory skin and corn-silk hair; he wants a girl with the face of an angel.


I’d have to talk to Eldric, wouldn’t I? Talk to this foreign boy-man animal. I knew nothing of boy-men and I didn’t care to learn. And he wouldn’t merely be living with us, but sleeping in Stepmother’s sickroom, sleeping in the very bed on which she had died.

And eat with him?

Mealtimes had been so awkward after Stepmother died and Father started spending time at home again. Neither of us had anything to say and Rose is no great conversationalist herself. We hadn’t had proper mealtimes while Stepmother was ill. Skipping meals is terrifically convenient: it gives one lots of time to brood and hate oneself.

Anyway, I hate cooking and I hate the kitchen and I hate Rose when she begins gulping air; which she was doing now as a way of limbering up for a fit of screaming. I’d warned Father, reminded him that Rose doesn’t like strangers, but Father never listens . . .

At least Rose doesn’t hide what she feels. At least she’s not silent, like Father.

There are several kinds of silence. There’s the silence of being alone, which I like well enough. Then there’s the silence of one’s father. The silence when you have nothing to say and he has nothing to say. The silence between you after the investigation of your stepmother’s death.

We’ve never spoken of the inquest, at which the coroner testified that Stepmother had died of arsenic poisoning. Of the inquest, at which Father testified that Stepmother might have taken her own life. Of the inquest, at which I testified that Stepmother would never have taken her life.

Not ever.

The air shattered. Rose’s scream had begun. The others jumped, then looked about, wondering if they should pretend not to notice. But I was still thinking about silence.

Father’s silence is not merely the absence of sound. It’s a creature with a life of its own. It chokes you. It pinches you small as a grain of rice. It twists in your gut like a worm.

Silence clawed at my throat. It left a taste of burnt matches.

No, our family doesn’t talk much.


This flowing first-person narrative is brilliant, it really is.

I did not like the book at all, and this is true even though the reader can see perfectly well right from the beginning that Briony is a good person, that she is legitimately a hero; that Eldric is an excellent male lead and the relationship between them (my favorite part of the book) is good for them both; that by the end, it will be made clear to everyone that Stepmother was evil and Briony, despite what she thinks, is not.

All this is true, but even so, I didn’t like the book. It was painful to read. Self-hatred is just not a characteristic that appeals to me at all, even when it’s clear that Briony is wrong about everything and that she will realize this by the end. Which she does, there’s no surprise twist to force everything to come out badly after all, thankfully.

I believe this is a book I might like much, much better on a re-read. I suspect that I would have liked it better the first time through if I’d flipped ahead and read the last couple of chapters before I waded through the swamp of the middle. (I don’t usually read ahead, so this didn’t occur to me til later.)

As a book to study first-person voice, well, CHIME is indeed brilliant. I wouldn’t keep it just for that reason unless I suspected I’d like it on a re-read, but it IS brilliant. I’m definitely interested in what Franny Billingsgate is going to do next. Preferably something not set in or near a swamp, and with a good deal less of a slog through self-hatred. In the meantime, I’m curious about her backlist.

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5 thoughts on “Recent Reading: CHIME by Franny Billingsley”

  1. I love this book, even the swampy part in the middle. I love that the setting is a perfect reflection of Briony’s confused and meandering mind. I do agree that it gets even better after a reread.

    I’ve always hated both covers, but the new green one is certainly the worst offender.

  2. So interesting, because I love Briony! I really identified with her struggle as someone who isn’t just self-loathing but who has been subjected to a pretty systematic gaslighting. (Self-hatred for its own sake, or tedious manpain, I find annoying.) The journey to rebuild the pathways in the brain is a difficult one and I loved the way Billingsley shows that.

    Her first book, The Folk Keeper, is also extremely atmospheric, but a bit less swampy. And I am quite fond of her picture book, Big Bad Bunny.

  3. i loved CHIME while I read it – Briony’s voice was wonderful – but it was painful, and I’ve never gone back to it. I think I twigged early enough that she was wrong about herself that I could bear the self-loathing while I figured out what was really behind it.

    I’ve also read Billingsley’s WELL WISHED and FOLK KEEPER and they were both well done, but didn’t hit that ‘keeper’ spot.

    harvested the first tomato today! i wasn’t expecting one quite so early, even though I planted early, and we’ve had some heat waves.

  4. I really enjoyed CHIME and found the first-person voice compelling.

    I have also read Billingsley’s backlist. WELL WISHED is a pleasant enough middle grade novel with a strong sense of place.

    I liked THE FOLK KEEPER a great deal. It is shorter than CHIME and reminded me a little of some of McKillip’s young adult novels. If you want to try another novel by Billingsley, I suggest you give it a try.

  5. So interesting that you all fell right into CHIME! I honestly think I will enjoy it more in a few years when I re-read it. I was definitely impressed with how Briony would make herself stop the self-hate talk at the end, when as Maureen says she was trying to re-wire her habits of thought. In fact, I was impressed with everything about this book, even though I didn’t like it, which is (very) unusual for me.

    Elaine, tomatoes in June? I’m envious. In a good year it would be July for us, but the spring was so cold I’m thinking more likely August this year.

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