By Gail JonesFiction Vintage
Gail Jones’ fifth novel takes an iconic Australian location so familiar as to almost be clichéd – Sydney’s Circular Quay – and makes it seductively strange and new, refracted through the experiences of four adults on one transformative day.
The four are mostly loosely connected, each with their own complex history, each haunted by past intimacies, secrets and guilt. Childhood friends Ellie and James, bound for reunion, separately recall their mutual sexual awakening as teenagers, while James is also stalked by tragedy. Catherine mourns the loss of her beloved brother in Dublin. And Pei Xing, on her way to visit a former acquaintance re-encountered, remembers her imprisonment during China’s Cultural Revolution. A fifth figure, a child barely glimpsed, asserts an unexpected significance as the day draws to a close.
Inspired by Kenneth Slessor’s classic poem and influenced by modernist novels such as Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, also set over the course of a day, this is an intensely literary novel, rich with references and ideas, and beautifully wrought in Jones’ characteristically taut, lyrical prose.
Gail Jone’s Five Bells is a remarkably subtle book. In this gently paced and atmospheric story we are introduced to four characters, Pei Xing, Catherine, Ellie and James. The solitude of these individuals stands for the interiority we experience, even while living in crowded and bustling cities. Jones deftly choreographs ‘a day in the life’ of her ensemble cast before they momentarily intersect amongst the heat and movement of Sydney’s Circular Quay. Along the way she pays due homage to Kenneth Slessor’s elegiac poem, ‘Five Bells’. In the writing of both Slessor and Jones we realise that tragedy forever hovers near.
When you pick up this book prepare to be taken on a journey. Gail Jones has the ability to write in such a descriptive style that you feel that you are inside the story, inside the characters' minds, almost like an intruder watching the events unfold.
Five Bells is the story of four people - Ellie, James, Pei Xing and Catherine - who all spend a day in Sydney with Circular Quay, the Sydney Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge as the backdrops. Although the story follows these people over one day, it delves into their memories and past experiences. The reader is taken to China during the Cultural Revolution, to Ireland where a grieving family buries their son and brother, and to the Australian country life of school children. Each of the characters has experienced grief and tragedy and, while I felt the overwhelming sense of sadness throughout the story, a slight glimmer of hope appeared at the end.
Once I had started the story, I found I couldn’t put it down. I was curious to find out how the characters would intersect and also, where was the fifth person (Five Bells)? While there was not a standard ‘happy’ ending, I finished the story feeling satisfied.
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