Gail Jones is an acclaimed Australian writer with four novels to her name. Five Bells, her fifth, is set in Sydney on one day shortly after the new Labor Government has come to power, some time in 2008. It tells the stories of four individual characters as they criss-cross the city on a fine summer’s day.
There is Ellie, a tourist from rural NSW, who has ventured into the city to meet her old boyfriend, James, whom she has not seen for several years. Ellie’s home-life has been troubled, and James, now a school teacher, is recovering from a tragedy that has scarred him emotionally.
Then there is Catherine, from Dublin, who is embarking on a new life in Australia after the death of her beloved brother in a car accident. And, finally, there is Pei Xing, born in China, who is still trying to come to terms with the loss of her parents, who were killed in Mao’s Cultural Revolution.
Apart from Ellie and James, these characters do not know each other but there are fleeting moments when their lives intersect. Eventually they meet, but under unexpected and tragic circumstances, right at the end of the novel.
The book is not particularly plot-driven, but it is very much a story about characters, and, in particular, their inner lives. There’s a quote about three-quarters of the way through that sums up the premise of Five Bells perfectly. In it Ellie stands at a bus-stop processing the thoughts in her head: her dad’s untimely death; her mother’s quick and unexpected re-marriage; of having sex with Jamie in her teenage years.
A bus-stop wait could cover all this, all this complicated history. A woman standing still in a main street on a Saturday afternoon could carry all this: death, time, recollected acts of love-making — all together, simultaneous, ringing in her head.
In many ways that’s exactly what reading this book feels like. You become totally immersed in the interior monologues of the four different characters, holding their thoughts in your own head, like a simultaneous refrain, and waiting for the moments of shared experience, whether physical or mental, between them.
Jones’ great achievement is that she gives each character an authentic backstory and fleshes it out without being too obvious about it. In doing this she shows how memory works, but she’s also able to demonstrate what it is to be human, and how, despite our varied backgrounds and upbringings, we are all much alike beneath the surface. In many ways this is a book about the deep personal secrets we all keep.
Pei Xing is a prime example. Her self-reliance, friendliness and kindness belies her tortured past. Every week she makes a long trek by public transport to visit an elderly woman in hospital recovering from a stroke. The woman was once her prison guard in China, but it is not something she has ever told anyone. Who, for instance, would understand their complicated relationship? Pei simply sits with the woman and reads Doctor Zhivago, which her father translated, to her.
She did not speak of Mao. She did not mention their large-scale history, the three-year famine, or the anti-rightist campaigns; just as she did not tell the most private of her family memories, the red-coat day, her mother’s music, the times she had spent learning English and Russian from her father. And so it went by, the cosy lassitude of a hospital afternoon, washed in reminiscence and a snowy story from Russia.
The city of Sydney is also a central character in this book. There are recurring motifs throughout: Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Opera House; an Aboriginal busker playing a didgeridoo; Circular Quay and the ferries plying the water; the Museum of Contemporary Art; the sunshine and the glittering harbour waters.
And in this there are echoes of James Joyce’s Dubliners, especially in the last paragraph which is reminiscent of Joyce’s great short story The Dead, substituting the snow over Dublin for rain over Sydney.
There is a lot of music in this novel, too, a soundtrack that mirrors the cacophony of city noises. Catherine has Elvis Costello’s I Want You trailing “mournfully through her head”, listens to Sinead O’Connor singing Raglan Road, and has a crush on U2’s Bono stemming from her teenage years; James has Coldplay’s Clocks in his mind (“it is the curse of his generation, to have a soundtrack enlisted for everything”) and is haunted by the disturbing images in the video for Nirvana’s Heart-shaped Box which he’d seen as a 19-year-old. Even Pei remembers her father telling her that everyone possesses an “inward music”.
Five Bells is an ambitious, beautifully written novel, full of the lovely rich language I’ve come to expect from Gail Jones (I’ve reviewed Sorry and Sixty Lights on this blog). It’s a moving, rather gentle, story about coming to grips with the past in order to move into the future, of the ties that bind us to our families, and of the things we never tell each other. And I’d like to think it might earn Jones a place on this year’s Booker long-list…