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Five Bells: A Novel by Gail Jones
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Five Bells: A Novel (original 2011; edition 2012)

by Gail Jones

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136None87,912 (3.83)79
Litfan's review
Five Bells is the story of four different people, whose lives connect at Circular Quay, the site of the Sydney Opera House. The story shifts between each of their perspectives on the same day, as their lives link in sometimes planned, sometimes unexpected, ways.

The writing is stunning. I found myself reading some sentences over and over because the composition and rhythm was so impressive. The author vividly brings Sydney to life in her descriptions. In fact, at times, the setting seems the strongest character in the story. Each of the characters had their own interesting story (I found that of Pei Xing to be the most fascinating), but with the exception of Pei Xing, they felt somewhat removed, so that it was difficult to feel invested in them.

I haven't read writing this brilliant in a long, long time. If you're looking for powerful writing that's rich in symbolism and will generate a lot of thoughtful discussion, this book will not disappoint. If you're looking for richly developed characters to connect with, it may fall short of your expectations. I tend to love books that really hone in on character development; the gorgeous writing and symbolism in this were enough to keep me turning the pages, but in the end I longed for something more. ( )
2 vote Litfan | Apr 28, 2012 |
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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. It’s 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 twenty 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 sixty 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. Beyond the painful and joyful moments of the present tense, is transformation and transcendence.

Article first published as Book Review: Five Bells by Gail Jones on Blogcritics.
1 vote Magdalena.Ball | Nov 8, 2012 |
Reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s MRS.DALLOWAY and evoking Joyce’s story, “The Dead”, Gail Jones’s stunningly beautiful literary novel follows four characters as they move about near Sydney Harbour’s Circular Quay on a glorious January Saturday. Prospective readers who relish the plot-driven novel should be forewarned that given its lack of significant external action, FIVE BELLS is likely not the book for them; rather, it is a work for readers receptive to a meditation on memory and the inner life. Jones provides us with her characters’ responses to scenes around the harbour (particularly the opera house), their recollections of the past, ruminations on the failures and losses in their lives, and their remembrances of seemingly small but significant and life-changing “moments of being” from childhood and youth. In the process, the author allows us to hear her characters’ “inner music”—as a line from Pasternak’s DR. ZHIVAGO puts it--a novel, which, by the way, all the characters know and allude to at some point in FIVE BELLS. Only two of the protagonists, Ellie and James, know each other: they share memories of childhood and adolescent sexual awakening in a small town in Western Australia. Even so, all of the characters—Ellie, James, Chinese-born sixty-ish Pei Xing, and Irish journalist Catherine Healy--become linked, not only because they are all moving in the same milieu and responding to the same sensory inputs—a didgeridoo busker, a child’s squeal, flags and umbrellas flapping, signs of a coming storm, bats and seabirds, the movement of the crowd and ferries—but also through recurrent images: of water, in particular, (very Virginia Woolf); the colours red and yellow; lungs, and snow (very James Joyce and Boris Pasternak)—among others. Themes of migrancy and displacement, literary translation, familial loss, and imprisonment also link the characters in this tapestry of images and impressions.

This is the first work of Gail Jones’s I’ve read. Its impact on me is considerable enough to make me seek out other books by her and to find and read the Kenneth Slessor poem for which the novel is named. FIVE BELLS is a new favourite of mine and a book I’ve found myself thinking about repeatedly since I completed it.

MY FAVOURITE BOOK IN 2012. ( )
1 vote fountainoverflows | Aug 18, 2012 |
Five Bells is the story of four different people, whose lives connect at Circular Quay, the site of the Sydney Opera House. The story shifts between each of their perspectives on the same day, as their lives link in sometimes planned, sometimes unexpected, ways.

The writing is stunning. I found myself reading some sentences over and over because the composition and rhythm was so impressive. The author vividly brings Sydney to life in her descriptions. In fact, at times, the setting seems the strongest character in the story. Each of the characters had their own interesting story (I found that of Pei Xing to be the most fascinating), but with the exception of Pei Xing, they felt somewhat removed, so that it was difficult to feel invested in them.

I haven't read writing this brilliant in a long, long time. If you're looking for powerful writing that's rich in symbolism and will generate a lot of thoughtful discussion, this book will not disappoint. If you're looking for richly developed characters to connect with, it may fall short of your expectations. I tend to love books that really hone in on character development; the gorgeous writing and symbolism in this were enough to keep me turning the pages, but in the end I longed for something more. ( )
2 vote Litfan | Apr 28, 2012 |
What a lovely novel! I read Sorry by Gail Jones several years ago, and her writing has gotten even better. This one is even more character driven, so if you're looking for big action, best look elsewhere. The novel focuses on four people, all a bit haunted, sad, and lonely in their own way, yet all but one also hopeful. Catherine can't seem to move past the death of her much-beloved brother. Ellie can't move past her first lover, James, and when they plan to meet again, her hopes are rekindled. But James is running from his own past and a tragic secret. Pei Xing was imprisoned and tortured during China's Cultural Revolution. While she is trying to shape a new life in Australia, she does so mainly be embracing the ghosts of her past.

Jones takes us inside each of these characters, each of them unique yet identifiable, and lets us feel their pain, their joy, their fear, their hope. Her style is perfectly suited to her introverted structure and to each of her characters. It's just lovely, spare, poetic, original. Here, for example, is Pei Xing remembering her father, a translator who had brought Doctor Zhivago to Chinese readers:

"Pei Jing's father, always a thin man, was becoming even thinner, living, it seemed, only on cigarettes, so that when the Cultural Revolution began and the Red Guards came to take him away, he was already half gone. As someone educated abroad and used to negotiating meanings in English and Russian, he was bound to be considered a class traitor and a running dog of imperialists. The weighty terms written in large letters on banners outside their house, the line on the door about the Four Olds, all seemed to bear no relation to her harried parents, but more especially to her father, whose skin was like parchment and who was already translating himself into another world when the Revolution began. He was already thinning in Chinese style, like lines of brushstrokes, a narrow falling vertical, and right to left."

This is a gentle but very moving novel, one I highly recommend. ( )
6 vote Cariola | Mar 12, 2012 |
Gail Jones begins Five Bells with an evocative depiction of a sunny day in Sydney's Circular Quay. I felt as if I stood in amongst the ebb and flow of the crowd, feeling the sun on my face, scenting the salt air, hearing the chug of the ferry and the squeal of a slowing train. From the corner of my eye I can almost see Ellie gazing at the water, Pei Qing exchanging a few dollars for an ice-cream, James frowning absently at the crowds, Catherine shading her eyes against the sun to watch the climbers on the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the delighted giggle of a little girl with pink clips in her hair.

From the first pages the language of this novel is powerfully lyrical. Jones introduces her characters by describing their reactions to the iconic landmark of the Sydney Opera House. For Ellie the building is an ode to joy, to James it's white curves resemble predatory teeth, like those a shark. Pei Xing admires the harmony of form while Catherine compares it to the drooping petals of a white rose. It is these evocative descriptions that give us insight into the characters state of mind. Five Bells reveals the lives of these four very different people who are passing through Circular Quay on a sunny, summer day and we follow them until night falls. Ellie and James, once teenage lovers are meeting for the first time in years and separately reminisce about their past together and their lives since. Pei Xing recalls her life under the communist regime in China as she travels to visit her torturer, while Catherine mourns her brother, tragically killed in a car accident. I found the pasts of these characters fascinating, particularly Pei Xing's story, but their present is largely unremarkable.
Little actually happens in this novel but it is almost impossible not to be caught up in the secrets of these characters lives. The lack of plot and momentum can be off putting, though as Five Bells is just over 200 pages it's done before you realise it's not really going anywhere. This is not a novel you read for a compelling tale but to admire a beautiful turn of phrase and the occasional stunning insight.

Had Five Bells a more commercial story structure along with the gorgeous prose I wouldn't hesitate in recommending it but I think its rather pretentious literary bent limits its appeal. It is a worthy read but perhaps not an entertaining one. ( )
1 vote shelleyraec | Feb 22, 2012 |
This story takes place in Sydney as the four characters visit Circular Quay on a fine summers day. It is not a book full of action, but it is a beautifully written book. Each of the characters is reminiscing and remembering their past, the painful experiences that they have lived through but maybe not dealt with. We have Ellie who grew up in the country and is now loving living in a big vibrant city. She is remembering her first sexual experience with James a boy she went to school with. We have James who wants to reconnect with Ellie on this day after a long break. He is trying to deal with a tragedy that has happened in his life that he feels responsible for. The third character is an older Chinese woman Pei Xing who is remembering the time she was imprisoned in China during the cultural revolution and the last character is Catherine, from Ireland who is still trying to come to terms with the tragic loss of the brother she was close too. We share their past stories, and we are priviledged to know their impressions of Circular Quay the place they have all chosen to spend their day. It is interesting seeing how they describe the thngs they are seeing and the imagery they use sometimes similar, sometimes different. But it is the appearance breifly in the story of a young girl that will teach that sometimes situations are not able to be resolved. ( )
  kiwifortyniner | Sep 8, 2011 |
In this poetic novel, Jones meditates on memory, especially memories of childhood and of loved ones who are dead or far away, through the stories and back stories of four people who converge on Sydney's Circular Quay on a stunningly sunny day. Very little happens in this novel, other than the lyrically expressed thoughts of Ellie, a rural western Australian delighted to now be living in a diverse, vibrant city; James, her lover from their school years together, who is seeking her now to try to cope with a tragedy that has befallen him; Pei Xing, a middle-aged Chinese woman, living in Sydney for 15 years, who was imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution; and Catherine, a young Irish woman escaping her traditional family in Dublin and mourning the death of her brother. Sydney itself is another character in the story: the reader gains a vivid impression of its varied neighborhoods and cosmopolitan allure.

Several images and themes wind through the novel -- snow, Doctor Zhivago translation, migrating birds, and especially water. I am grateful to an Australian LTer for sending me a copy of Kenneth Slessor's iconic poem, "Five Bells," because it helped me think about the very watery nature of this book, as well as its undercurrent of sadness and death. Despite the emphasis on the sparkling, glorious, sunshine, there is the pull of the water, from the trips on the ferry, to a Chinese water clock that emphasizes the continuous nature of time (as opposed to the measured segments indicated by a western clock or watch), to the death by drowning of Magritte's mother, and more. There are also references to art and music, and I have to confess I didn't really know what to make of all of these images and themes, some of which seemed a little forced, as did the [SPOILER ALERT] fact that class of schoolchildren was taken camping on a beach with only one adult supervising. However, overall, I found the novel lyrical and moving.
8 vote rebeccanyc | Jun 1, 2011 |
Briefly, Five Bells tells the story of four different people, all, at the moment the novel opens, are enroute to or through the Circular Quay (pronounced "key"), the hub of Sydney Harbor. And each person is lost in thought, preoccupied by memories. As Jones explores the backstories stories of each of the four, she deftly weaves, in her characteristic lyrical prose, threads between the four of them. There are reoccurring motifs like snow and Russian literature and the Sydney Opera House.

"It was moon-white and seemed to hold within it a great, serious stillness. The fan of its chambers leant together, inclining to the water. An unfolding thing, shutters, a sequence of sorts. Ellie marvelled that it had ever been created at all, so singular a building, so potentially faddish, or odd. And that shape of supplication, like a body bending into the abstraction of a low bow or a theological gesture. Ellie could imagine music in there, but not people somehow. It looked poised in a kind of alertness to acoustical meanings, concentrating on sound waves, opened to circuit and flow.

Yes, there it was. Leaning into the pure morning sky."

Each character sees the building differently, using a different metaphor. And here, I think, the author is using this particular exercise to illustrate how we remember, each of us remembering the same things but slightly different through the lens of who we are.

I loved revisiting Sydney through this book. Her descriptions are wonderful. The story though makes one, like her characters of Ellie, Catherine, James and Pei Xing, thoughtful, wistful. But then it is a book about memory.

I am a die-hard Gail Jones fan, and I don't think this is my favorite of her books, but it is another beautiful piece of literature. ( )
6 vote avaland | May 6, 2011 |
Five Bells is as luminous as the glorious Sydney day on which this story unfolds:
“As Catherine paused, she saw, to the left, the Bridge across the water, and the harbour, and a small ferry, chugging away to the north. Bridge, water, harbour, ferry: all were ablaze, all illuminate. This part of the world collected light as if funnelled double-strength from the sun. Perhaps some refractive quality of the water, or those shining petals, perhaps the geography of sheltered spaces or the winking skyscrapers on the far shore, perhaps these together contributed to an increased incandescence.”

Read my review at www.belletrista.com, May 2010. ( )
1 vote amandameale | Apr 17, 2011 |
Gail Jones evocation of Sydney harbour, its light and sparkling beauty, the buskers, visitors and enraptured locals was so in concert with my own experience of it, that I sailed through her pages of lyrical writing. The lives of people are inevitably intertwined on the one fateful day she describes. Kenneth Slessor's poem of the same name echoes through this novel not just in the setting but in the mood and the dark ending. ( )
  kateking | Apr 13, 2011 |
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