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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:

“She remembered the blow to her face that had broken her nose and the sour taste of blood at the back of her throat…Pei Xing thought to herself: I can never escape this, never; it has followed me to Australia. I am Australian now, and still it is here. Still it is here.”(118)

As Hua readily admits, the violence cannot be undone – there is no excuse. Pei Xing’s family cannot be brought back and her forgiveness doesn’t come easy, working against the wishes of her son and daughter-in-law. Nevertheless, there is love between Pei Xing and Dong Hua, and Pei Xing’s transformation from victim to carer is one that resonates powerfully.

Her path crosses with another character, Catherine, an Irish tourist mourning the death of her brother, when both of them are shown on television next to a child who has disappeared. Pei Xing and Catherine develop an instant connection, and Pei Xing attempts to comfort Catherine during a brief exchange at the police station.

Catherine experiences the trip as a kind of wake for her lost brother Brendan – another nod to Joyce that is made explicit as Catherine watches the waves swell from the ferry. Throughout the book are tiny threads that bind these characters together – from Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago read by two separate characters at separate times, the visions of the Opera House and Circular Quay that each character experiences at different moments, to the ‘unbeachable gap’ between countries, continents and across time.

This is a novel that, like Slessor’s poem, explores time, and the way in which it flows between and across character. When Ellie, James, and their pivotal teacher Miss Morrison learn about the Clepsydra – the Chinese clock that consists of vessels that leak time, Ellie and James are excited. Time is a process “of emptying and filling, a fluent time-passing, not one chopped into pieces.”

This is the theme of Five Bells and Jones works it beautifully, never loosening her grip of the theme, or letting her characters off the hook.  Nevertheless, there is transformation and transcendence.  

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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.