Confession: I really loved Chime. For Franny Billingsley’s depiction of depression, sure, but also because of the lush, voicy prose, the atmosphere and setting, the puzzle-like plot, the complicated, hyper-real characters. Very few novels have captivated me recently on the level that this one has.
Before I continue, I would like to warn readers that this review will contain extensive spoilers, and half of the fun in reading this book is piecing together what really happened (because, yes, our protagonist Briony is very unreliable). Unfortunately, it is impossible to discuss Briony’s depression in depth without discussing the ending.
Before her stepmother died mysteriously from arsenic poisoning, seventeen-year-old Briony promised her she would do two things: first, tend to her autistic twin sister Rose, and second, never reveal her own witchiness, because witches are wicked and are hung if caught. Briony manages both of these things, hiding her grief and self-loathing under a veneer of ice. Then the charming Eldric arrives and threatens to crack this veneer. He comes from London, a place that strikes Briony as exotic, with its trains and electricity. But the arrival of technology to the Swampsea and the draining of the swamp panic the Old Ones, who fear the imminent destruction of their home. The Boggy Mun has sent the swamp cough through the town, infecting the young. Including Rose.
While Briony’s depression is never made explicit in the text, I found it obvious within the context of the story. At first, we are merely given a picture of it: her unbridled self-hatred, her constant self-blame, her belief that she can’t experience love or happiness. She uses her scathing wit to simultaneously hide from her emotions and denigrate herself. Depression affects everyone differently, and Briony’s particular brand of it is pulled off marvelously, not only accurate to the illness but also unique to her. Every symptom feels like it emerged from Briony’s particular personality and circumstance.
As the book progresses, we begin to understand that Briony’s depression is the result of some truly brutal psychological abuse from her dead stepmother (and, to a lesser extent, her father). Her stepmother, while originally portrayed as a positive and freeing figure, actually gaslighted Briony into thinking that she used her magic to break her stepmother’s back with a flood, and to make her sister autistic. Her stepmother was lying, trying to ensure that Briony remained loyal to her, the only person willing to keep Briony’s supposed wickedness a secret.
Authors often depict depression as caused by past abuse, to the detriment of those whose depression has no traumatic focal point. They use trauma as a sort of shortcut to make a character’s agony “acceptable.” However, while Briony’s depression is still trauma-based, the trauma is treated complexly. We see Briony refuse to believe in her own innocence, even to the point of illogicality. She often twists the truth to make herself seem worse; when she attempts something altruistic that backfires, she convinces herself that she in fact intended the backfire. To admit her own goodness would be to admit her stepmother’s wickedness, and thus she maintains her self-destructive spiral. While these mental gymnastics are incredibly hard to read, they also showed how deeply the emotional abuse affected Briony, and they struck me as remarkably similar to my own thought processes. Part of the way my depression manifests itself is through constant self-blame, and I appreciate the way it was depicted here.
But perhaps what made the book for me was the ending. Briony, with substantial help from her sister and Eldric, eventually recognizes her stepmother’s abuse, and realizes that she has no need to hate herself. She discovers that she is not a witch, but a Chime Child, an individual with one foot in this world and one in the world of the Old Ones, and who operates as a sort of supernatural judge. Yet, she still must work to eliminate her self-hatred.
“I am stomping out new memory paths.
“It is difficult. There are too many I am wicked paths crossing and crisscrossing my memory. I don’t believe the nice things I say to myself.” (page 338)
In so many books, a moment of clarity single-handedly cures the protagonist of their mental illness. This doesn’t happen in Chime, though Briony does become determined to get better. As the book is set in an uneducated town in early 20th-century Britain, professional treatment is likely unavailable, and is thus not mentioned. Instead, she makes do with her mind and the help of her loved ones to “stomp out new memory paths.” She hopes to cure herself through love, and self-love. That Briony is determined to love herself, after spending the whole book hating herself, gave me hope for my own psyche.
Honestly, I only scratched the surface of Chime in this review. In no way is Briony’s depression the whole point of this novel—however, it is an important piece, and it is portrayed excellently. As someone who struggles with depression, Chime was one of the most cathartic reading experiences of my life, and one that I hope other teens with depression can experience as well.