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Book Review: Five Bells by Gail Jones

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“But I hear nothing, nothing…only bells,
Five bells, the bumpkin calculus of Time.”

Like the epic poem from which it takes its title, Gail Jones’ Five Bells is a story about a series of inner illuminations or moments. From the start of the book and right through it, the reader is thrust into the very heart of four characters in a single location – Circular Quay in Sydney.

At the centre of each of the lives we move in and out of is the Sydney Opera House. Its sails form, to use Jones’ own words, “the intersection of so many currents of information.” There is outward motion as the characters walk, meet, and move in and out of that focal point, but the real plot takes place in the transition that each character undergoes.

From the very opening of the book where Ellie, the most well-developed character, imagines the arc of Circular Quay, to the circular ending where she is falling asleep imagining the Quay and trying to remember to phone her old lover James, the book reminded me of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. I can’t think of a higher compliment as The Waves is Woolf’s most mature and powerful piece of work, and Jones’ work accomplishes something similar, bringing together the disparate characters into a single multi-faceted character around a single multi-faceted location: “How then does light return to the world after the eclipse of the sun? Miraculously. Frailly. In thin stripes.” (The Waves 286).

Jones’ prose is delicate and richly poetic, always moving behind and beneath the superficial to not only get at the emotions and thought processes of her characters, but also at the memories of the past that illuminate the present. James and Ellie form the love story of the book, reuniting in Sydney after 20 years apart. The reader feels their ache – the damage in their separate lives, and the desire to go back to something that was powerful for both of them. James’ sorrow mingling with his desire forms the black heart of the story, and Jones handles the co-mingling of nostalgia, desire and the development of mature, independent love perfectly:

More than his shape, more than his touch, more than his off-hand humour and his inexperienced furvour, she wanted returned to her the ordinary astonishment of that first known body.” (99)

Ellie is the stronger of the two characters, and the way in which she processes that desire and nostalgia becomes a beacon of light that allows the book to end on a positive note, even in the midst of horror. The waves always break on the shore, and darkness is always waiting for us, in the evening or morning, but Ellie’s joy is the triumph of the moment eclipsing the rain that ends the book. 

This rain is a clear nod to the snow in James Joyce’s last Dubliners story “The Dead” and serves a similar purpose, bringing all the characters together under into a joined atmosphere: “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”   In Ellie’s world, all the living and the dead converge in that moment, just as they do in Joyce, providing a kind of transformation and immortality that is enough to eclipse the darkness.

Another character, Pei Xing, is a 60-year-old Chinese migrant. Pei Xing travels each week through Circular Quay to visit Dong Hua, the woman who tortured her while she was in prison during the Chinese Revolution, a thread that is well depicted and richly researched. The act of feeding and forgiving her tormentor is beautifully portrayed, as Jones doesn’t diminish or mollify the torment that Pei Xing had experienced. The reader feels it as Pei Xing remembers:

About Magdalena Ball

Magdalena Ball is the author of the novels Black Cow and Sleep Before Evening, the poetry books Repulsion Thrust and Quark Soup, a nonfiction book The Art of Assessment, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Sublime Planet, Deeper Into the Pond, Blooming Red, Cherished Pulse, She Wore Emerald Then, and Imagining the Future. She also runs a radio show, The Compulsive Reader Talks. Find out more about Magdalena at www.magdalenaball.com.