BOOK REVIEW: ‘Five Bells’ (Gail Jones, Vintage)

This is, quite simply, a beautiful book. To capture, in 200 pages, the lives of four disparate characters, across a single summer’s day, at Sydney’s iconic Circular Quay, and offer as rich and affecting a story of humanity as this is some achievement. Like the author, all the characters are new to Sydney: one from China, one from Ireland, and two from Jones’ own Western Australia. Theirs are separate backgrounds, but the day’s circumstances draw their narrated experiences together, and the secrets, haunting experiences and travails of their earlier lives are revealed.

As a Sydney-born reader, I am captive to the power of reference in the chosen title. If ever was an iconic Sydney ‘moment’ in literature, it’s always seemed to me that Kenneth Slessor’s ‘Five Bells’ is it. And the author’s quotation in the frontispiece leaves you in no doubt as to its symbolic importance:

Where have you gone? The tide is over you,
The turn of midnight’s water’s over you,
As time is over you, and mystery,
And memory, the flood that does not flow.

This is a novel full of iconic symbolism, not just the Sydney Opera House, Harbour Bridge, the harbour itself, and the famous Quay where white people first colonised Australia. The interrelatedness of separate lives and the ways in which the four stories of past and present are woven in the day’s events as a kind of psychohistory and psychogeography (think of Joyce’s Stephen Hero, or Woolf ’s Mrs Dalloway) form a satisfying, compelling narrative.

Themes of memory (and forgetting) reverberate through Jones’ work. As she did in Sorry and Dreams of Speaking, small, intimate, private lives are connected in Five Bells to a larger, universal narrative. The tiny world of Pei Xing, living out her life quietly in suburban Bankstown, is connected, through her tragic family past as a victim of China’s Cultural Revolution, to the great movements in world history. Similarly, echoes of the Irish diaspora are there in the story of Catherine, living in solitary hope, a world away from the Dublin where she lost a beloved brother. Ellie and James, childhood lovers on the other side of the continent, reconnect on this fateful Saturday, but their connection is now as irrevocably fractured as it was cemented then.

Slessor’s ‘Five Bells’ is justly acclaimed as an elegy of enormous power, about place and its spirit (John Olsen’s enormous mural in the northern foyer of the Opera House is called ‘Salute to Five Bells’). Memory, the sense of loss, and the painful connection between past and present are so brilliantly and immediately brought to life in Gail Jones’ Five Bells that it deserves to share the illustrious title.

David Gaunt is the co-owner of Gleebooks and recipient of the Member (AM) in the General Division of the Order of Australia in the Australia Day Honours 2011. This review first appeared in the Summer 2010/11 issue of Bookseller+Publisher.

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