“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: