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.
Chime 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.