My First Read of 2011: Franny Billingsley’s ‘Chime’

Elizabeth Bluemle -- January 10th, 2011

Happy New Year, everyone! By the time you read this, the ALA awards will most likely have been announced, and we can’t wait to discuss them here on Tuesday. In the meantime, it’s great to be back in the blogging seat again, especially with such a fantastic book to talk about. We start the ShelfTalker year with a dark beauty called Chime.

When I was trying to decide which ARC to take with me on vacation, it wasn’t too difficult to choose. Ever since Franny Billingsley’s Chime arrived in the mail, it’s been crooking tentacles of intent at me. I had the pleasure of hearing Billingsley read a brief passage from Chime at a writing conference a year or two ago, and its freshness and strangeness took my breath away. I was also (still am) a huge fan of her extraordinary 1999 novel, The Folk Keeper, one of the most original, atmospheric, beautifully written fantasies I’ve read.

I don’t know that there’s a better creator of setting, mood, and atmosphere than Franny Billingsley. Both The Folk Keeper and Chime exist in alternate realms with their feet in two worlds: a realistic, rustic, everyday world and a darker world full of Old Ones and Folk and brownies and tricksters and powerful natural forces in complicated relationship to girls with secret, even sinister, powers. The stories are mysterious and powerful, with all the ingredients of a perfect potion: danger, romance, betrayal, revenge, surprise, humor, forces both light and dark.

The truth is, I have a crush on Billingsley’s writing. It’s restive and descriptive and wonderful. Her similes and metaphors are beautiful without being precious, the rhythm and flow of her words are unerring, and her characters’ individual quirks and manners of expression make me remember what writing really is, and make me want to articulate the way human minds weave their weird trains of thought, instead of … I guess instead of constructing a more ordinary and less true, less astonishing narrative.

I can’t resist sharing a couple of passages, a sampler for those of you who have not yet had the pleasure of reading these books.

From The Folk Keeper:

February 5

It’s not a feast day, and the Folk have made no mischief, but yet I write. My astonishment spills into this Record as I wait for the Great Lady to call me. It will soon be time to go.

I shall miss this Cellar, my very own Cellar. I press my hand to the stone, loving the way he moisture oozes to the surface. The Folk devoured the eggs and dried fish I left for them last night, and my last act for the Folk of the Rhysbridge Foundling Home will be to steal Matron’s breakfast sausage.

It feels odd to write of myself, not of the Folk. Odd to take the pages of this Record above ground, to yesterday, when I slipped out of the Cellar door and Matron grasped my collar. “You’ve kept us waiting!” She would have shaken me, but she was too afraid. I make sure of that.

And a passage from the ARC of Chime:

How could I have forgotten that the swamp simply seeps into existence? That it bleeds and weeps into existence?

The itch was gone—the itch of my scar, the itch of the swamp craving. How lovely to seep and bleed and weep into the swamp. It would take more than three years for me to forget. If I could love anything, I’d love the swamp.

Is this what a nun feels when she runs wild? Perhaps running wild needn’t mean dressing in satin and taking to cigarettes. It might mean running into the wild, into the real, into the ooze and muck and the clean, muddy smell of life.

A tidbit about Franny Billingsley I hadn’t known before writing this post: she was a children’s bookseller in Chicago for 12 years. One of the tribe! And she, like so many other children’s book writers, left the legal profession to pursue her real passion. Lucky us!

And now, dear readers, it is time for me to get back into the ooze and muck and the clean, muddy smell of bookselling again. What 2011 books are YOU loving?

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