Chime – the real National Book Award Finalist

After the National Book Award committee’s very public mistake – identifying the wrong book as one of their five finalists – I wanted to read the book that almost missed out for a clerical error.

Fran Billingsley’s Chime is a fantasy with a teenage witch as the heroine. When not spouting Old World jargon, Briony produces intuitive gems that will ring true with teens struggling to go past childhood, into a new world of being grown-up. Briony carries heavy baggage in her attractive frame: her mother died in childbirth, her twin sister is mentally disabled, her father is emotionally distant, and her stepmother blamed her for everything – pouring guilt and fear into Briony’s susceptible mind before mysteriously dying of arsenic poisoning.

When handsome and personable Eldric arrives from London, teen romance and first love seem inevitable. Eldric’s father is the engineer assigned to drain the swamp – where most of Briony’s otherworldly creatures live. Draining the swamp will also change the town, not a popular concept with the citizenry who would prefer not to participate in the Industrial Revolution.

If the power of anger and wishing evil can cause bad consequences, Briony may be a witch, as she believes – thanks to her stepmother’s cruel indoctrination. Billingsley cleverly creates a feisty character that could influence the action with or without supernatural powers, and she sprinkles the story with imaginative creatures that only Briony can see and communicate with.

Billingsley sets the action at a time when women with red hair are hanged for being witches and uses rural English period language that is difficult to follow at first. The plot sometimes get lost in the translation. But, the story has a universal appeal with a satisfying ending, and a main character worth knowing. Chime deserves it nomination.