Review: Chime by Franny Billingsley

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I’ll start with this: if I hadn’t agreed in advance to read this book, I would probably have stopped two chapters in. As it is, I think I’m happy I didn’t. While many of the things that bothered me early on continued, many also got better as the book went on, and by the end Chime had sort of redeemed itself.

Sort of.

CHIME at GoodreadsChime is a YA fantasy story, told from the point of view of a young woman, Briony, who believes herself to be a witch. Briony’s twin sister, Rose, is autistic, although due to the early 20th-century setting that word is never actually used. Briony has spent a great deal of her life taking care of Rose, and even gave up going away to school partly to take care of her. Briony resents this, and resents her sister. We know this, because she spends a large portion of the first two chapters telling us how much she hates Rose (and just about everything else, including herself).

That said, the book isn’t actually about Rose being autistic—which is a nice change, as I rarely see autistic characters where the focus of the story isn’t either their autism or the incredible powers/abilities that autistic characters in scifi and fantasy often have. While Rose’s autism is tied into what is happening to Briony, and Briony’s feelings about and relationship with Rose are very central to the story, it isn’t a story about autism.

Since the story is about Briony, and not Rose, the presentation of Rose’s autism is a little hard to pin down. What we see of Rose is what Briony sees. As Briony learns to understand herself and her sister better, the presentation changes. Throughout, Briony is not a very reliable narrator, and that becomes increasingly clear as the story progresses—but really, by the fifteenth time (or so, I lost count) she reminds herself that she has to hate herself, I was pretty sure that this young woman’s view of things was not altogether healthy.

Especially at first, Rose’s presentation is incredibly stereotypical, and leans on various harmful tropes and beliefs. Within the second chapter, we are told that Rose “never saw, not about feelings” (pg 3), that she knows the exact number of steps between home and the river, and that she “likes looking twelve.” We are also treated to the sentence “I’ve looked after Rose for years and years, and she drained me dry long ago.”

It’s not that all of these things are necessarily, by themselves, incorrect. And they are certainly realistic things for a non-autistic caretaker to think and feel. But they contribute to ideas and stereotypes about autistic people that are incredibly harmful, and they made me, as an autistic reader, feel alienated. It is true that many autistic people struggle with empathy or with understanding the way others express emotion (though the same could be said about allistic people in relation to autistics), and by itself I don’t think a line about not “[seeing]…about feelings” would be a problem. Combined with the repeated discussion of how put-upon Briony is and how much she has to sacrifice for her sister, and with the aspersions cast upon Rose’s personhood, the line stuck in my mind as reinforcing the idea that autistic people either do not feel, or do not care about other’s feelings—although I do not believe that is what the author intended.

It is also true that many or most autistic people obsess over certain areas of interest and remember obscure trivia about things—but counting steps is such a stereotypical presentation of this that it’s up there with liking trains. Yes, there are probably autistic people who count things like steps, but there is a perception that all autistic people have a number-related special interest, and that just isn’t true. I will say that counting steps is not the only thing Rose obsesses over or shows a very specific interest in, but it is one of them, and as a first impression it left me pretty unimpressed.

As for Rose enjoying looking “childish” (for that is how Briony describes the clothes Rose is so fond of), this is the start of something that continues throughout the book, and which I found very frustrating. It’s true that autistic people are often perceived as being “childish,” and the idea of “mental age” is often falsely and harmfully applied, and it’s also true that some people, autistic or not, like looking “childish.” But it bothered me here, because when one of the first things you learn about an autistic character is that they “like looking twelve” (in contrast to their non-autistic sister, who hates it), it doesn’t exactly discourage people from infantilizing them. The way that Briony and some of the other characters speak to Rose also comes across as very patronizing, and this is treated as the correct way to speak to her. Rose is seventeen, but no one treats her that way, and she never expresses any frustration with the way she’s treated.

As for the idea that Rose has “drained Briony dry,” it’s things like this that made me want to stop reading the book altogether. I understand that being a caretaker is hard and exhausting, but as an autistic reader I’d rather not be made to feel like I’m, say, destroying the life and soul of those who love me.

That’s not to say there weren’t things I liked: as the book progresses, we’re shown that Rose does have romantic feelings for someone, and it gradually becomes clear that these romantic feelings are not simply a little girl with a crush, but a young woman hoping to develop a romantic relationship. And while we don’t get to see her develop that relationship, I did get the sense that the feelings might be at least somewhat mutual. She also gets to play an important and active role in the plot, although there is the unfortunate implication that, were she not autistic, certain things would have been solved much earlier. It also becomes even clearer that Briony is not a reliable narrator, and that, when allowed it, Rose does perfectly well with some modicum of independence.

However, a lot of that doesn’t happen until the last few chapters, and even well into the book there were things that bothered me. In particular, the continued infantilization and the way Briony talks about Rose. At one point Briony states that she wants to kill her sister—perhaps she was not being serious (it is not unlikely, I sometimes miss these things), but given the cases of caregivers actually murdering their autistic family members, I feel like having your characters even joke about that is in rather poor taste. And fairly late in the book Briony talks about Rose’s “real-girl smile,” which I didn’t realize was meant to be ironic until the end, when Briony wonders how she “could ever have doubted [Rose] was a real girl” (pg 285).

While I’m glad that the book eventually turned some of this around, I still have to question whether that really balances out the 300-odd pages of Rose being treated like a child and a burden. (I questioned it. It might work for some people, but for me the answer is no.) A good ending doesn’t erase the time I spent feeling isolated, excluded, and hurt because of the way Rose is treated. I wish it did, because I really want to love this book. The prose is lovely—and a fantasy novel with a strong basis in Scottish fairy lore, an autistic character, and a young woman who uses self-hatred as a coping mechanism? Sounds pretty good to me. Those three things basically describe me at seventeen. But I’m trying to get away from self-hatred, and a book that repeatedly talks about what a burden I, as an autistic person, am on my loved ones, is not something I can enjoy.



About Author

Eliora Smith

Eliora Smith is a blogger and poet. She left college after her first year due to disability and decided to pursue her career in writing. On her blog she reviews various forms of media and looks at the way they handle different kind of diversity. Eliora is fascinated by all types of storytelling, especially fairytales. She lives in the approximate middle of nowhere with her parents, two cats, and a very large number of penguin-related tchotchke.

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3 Comments

  1. Pingback: Review: Chime by Franny Billingsley

  2. Pingback: Autistic Representation and Real-Life Consequences: An In-Depth Look

  3. Just finished the book, I’m autistic and I absolutely loved it.There are some key points you missed in your review. Maybe you intentionally left them out because of spoilers, but pretty much everything is justified in the end as they are part of Briony being an unreliable narrator and gives clues about the ending. The key thing is the story is a mystery which autism plays a part in, not a story about autism, sensitivity was sacrificed to strengthen the narrative. So, spoilers.

    One main thing you left out is the Briony blames Rose’s autism on a brain injury from an accident she believed she cause. This is very important clue to people knowledgeable about autism, as it ISN’T caused by brain injury, and thus proves that Briony doesn’t know what she is talking about, leading up to the reveal that her stepmother was gaslighting her. The author needed to make Rose obviously autistic at first so the reader could potentionally pick up on that.

    Regarding the feeling part, the important part is that in the end Briony realizes Rose DOES have empathy for her. The realization of how intense her love is is what brought Briony to tears during the trial despite thinking she cannot cry.

    It also needs to be pointed out that caring for Rose was NOT draining Briony, it was her stepmother draining her as she’s a Dark Muse, and she was blaming it on Rose to deflect the blame. Briony realizes she likes Rose and she’s not a burden as the story goes on.

    Yes, Rose is mistreated by many characters in the story. That’s just a part of life for disabled people. Can’t fight the demon without acknowledging it exists. While I was initially bothered by the same things as you, i found they all got resolved by the end. I adore Rose’s character, she has a strong personality, really most the problems come from Briony. Yeah, there is some implication that Rose’s autism impeded her ability to tell the secret earlier, it’s also implied she wouldn’t have even known the secret in the first place without her autism as her learning about it was due to her hyperlexia. And it’s really Briony’s fault she didn’t pick up on Rose’s secret, Rose gave all the information for Briony to know she was a chime child, but she just attributed the hints to Rose’s condition at first and later just failed to combine the information she knew to get to the conclusion.

    Finally, while Briony isn’t quite autistic, she isn’t quite neurotypical either. This makes sense, as she is the identicle twin to an autistic girl and there is the Broader Autistic Phenotype. Even their father seems to have some traits, which explains some of the family conflict. She might be decent at understanding social norms and reading nonverbal cues, but her social skills really aren’t that great, and she was always a bit of a loner. She knew she though differently than other girls, which she attributed to being a witch before learning she’s a chime child. She wouldn’t have doubted having feelings of any sort so long without being alexithymic. She says she has an excellent memory, an she is very good at recalling facts, but her episodic memory is notably worse. Lastly her inability to connect some of the facts demonstrates weak central coherence, and she’s very single minded, being able to figure out what was going on with Eldric but failing to apply the same reasoning to her own situation. All traits of autism. These traits make autistic people very vulnerable to gaslighting, and the book is basically all about Briony being gaslighted. So in a way, it kinda is a book about autism, just not directly.

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