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Five Bells, by Gail Jones.

December 13, 2013

Five Bells, by Gail Jones.  Picador (2012), Edition: Reprint, Paperback, 224 pages.


 An exquisite, unusual novel by an Australian woman about four people in Sydney on a summer day.

Gail Jones’s novel is packed full of finely detailed descriptions of the sights and feel of Sydney’s Circular Quay.  Readers see the Opera House, the bridge, the crowds and the water as her four characters saw them, changing over the course of one glorious summer day.  And we learn about each of her characters, their pasts and their presents.  Two are Australians, one Irish and one Chinese.  Two have known each other intimately in the distant past but been apart for years.  The other two remain strangers who interact only casually during the day.

At first the book seemed to me to be almost entirely description.  With little or no unifying plot, I floundered a little.  Eventually I realized that instead of characters conventionally relating with each other, Jones gives us individuals who remain separate.  Even the two with pieces of a shared past barely connect.  The common thread is Jones’s attention to her characters’ memories and how each deal differently with what they have experienced.    All of their memories remain very real and present, intersecting with the views of the Sydney harbor.  How they deal with their memories differs sharply.  They range from being caught in their pain and losses to moving on accepting and accommodating to their new lives.   After all, as Jones reminds us, memories are elusive, not something concrete and trustworthy in realities of the present.   Her title and epigram come from Kenneth Slessor’s poem “Five Bells” and express how insubstantial our memories actually are.

Where are you gone? The tide is over you,

The turn of midnight water’s over you,

As Time is over you, and mystery.

And memory, the flood that does not flow.

Jones would never try to tell us how we should deal with our memories, but the character who seems most successful in doing so seem to be Pei Xing, a woman who had been imprisoned during her country’s Cultural Revolution and later migrated to Australia.  Riding the harbor ferry, she reflects on her multiple selves.

. . . these selves had blended and folded; now in meditation, she was able to fan them apart. . . . I have lived many lives.  There was something reassuring in this, not to be singular but many, not to be one language but several, not to have one discrete past, but a skein and multiple.

The depiction of this woman who is from China and now is a part of Australia is a critical part of the novel.  Jones’s acknowledgements reveal how much effort she invested in getting right a character from a culture not her own.  We need more writers like her who gracefully incorporate diversity into their books, even when it is not the main theme and their own lives have been mainstream.

I wholeheartedly recommend Gail Jones and Five Bells to readers love words and descriptions and appreciate books that push them to think deeply with issues like how we deal with our memories.  And of course, it is a great book for all who know or want to know Sydney.  It is another wonderful book that is not for every reader.

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