‘Five Bells’ by Gail Jones

2011, 216 pages

I don’t always read the epigraphs that grace the front pages of a book.  To be honest, I’m not really sure what purpose they serve- are they an encapsulation of the book in someone else’s words? are they a nod to writers who have come before? or are they a window into the texts that served as inspiration for the writer?  Probably all of the above, and I suspect that in this case, the latter is close to the mark.

The quotation from which the book takes its title is Kenneth Slessor’s poem Five Bells,  one of his best known poems, written after the death of a friend.  Gail Bell has chosen from the poem these lines.  The author has chosen:

Where have 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.

‘Five Bells’ is a nautical term that measures the elapse of a four-hour watch on board ship, and the focus of time elapsing is pertinent here because we are very aware of it in the structure of this book.  The book is set on one summer Saturday, around Circular Quay (there’s that water theme again- and it emerges again throughout the book) as four people converge there from somewhere else, and the narrative swings from one character to another, in a sequence, not unlike the chiming of bells.  Round and round it goes, from Ellie to James to Catherine to Pei Xing then back to Ellie again as the day breaks clear and blue and creeps on to one of those night-time storms  that Sydney summers are noted for.  In this regard, it reminded me very much of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, which took six friends, each writing from their own stream of consciousness.  However, here the characters in this book are observed minutely,  yet from a distance, rather than speaking in their own voices. Nonetheless,  it is very much an interior description, ranging over their memories, fears and disappointments across decades and continents.  In another nod to Woolf, there are echoes too of Mrs Dalloway in its single-day focus.

Her characters are each suffering loss of differing degrees: loss of relationships, loss of brother, loss of freedom, and exposure to tragedy.  Their stories are revealed gradually, as the spotlight of the narrative swings onto them before moving on to the next character.  There are resonances between the stories with multiple allusions Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago,  eight year old girls etc. which at times felt a little forced, but I suppose evokes the same sense of connectedness and chance that we feel with the concept of ‘six degrees of separation’ and other such life coincidences.

Despite the rhythm and symmetry of the structure, the characters are not equally well-developed.  Catherine, the Irish tourist, never really became real to me, and although Pei Xing’s story was touching, I found it difficult to actually understand and thus accept her motivation for acting the way she did.  I think that Ellie and James, meeting again after twenty years, were the most clearly defined characters.

I must admit that I only made the connection with the maritime use of five bells when I googled it for this posting.  While I was reading it, I assumed that it referred to the characters and the circular way of telling their stories, like the rounds of a church bell.  There are four of them- who was the fifth? For much of the book I wondered if it was Sydney itself,  which with its harbour, the ferries,the Opera House,  Luna Park and Circular Quay is almost a character in its own right.  But then, in a marked change of pace near the end of the book, two other manifestations of what could be fifth character come into view.  This comes as rather a jolt.  I had been lulled into the almost soporific rhythm of the narrative and all of a sudden it changed direction.  I’m not really sure, though whether this sudden plot development was wise, or necessary to the book.  It changed the trajectory of the book and made some plot scenarios possible, but I think weakened the overall effect.

It is only a short book at 216 pages, and that is probably exactly the right length.  It is very carefully written with almost every phrase and image carefully burnished.  Perhaps a little too polished for my liking- I found myself almost  smothered by such intense, artistic writing- and so, while unsure about the necessity of the change of pace near the end, I greeted it as an escape into open air from a rather oppressive, perfumed interior.

I have set this post aside for a couple of days, unsure of how to sum up my response to the book.  Ambivalent, I’d have to say.  I admire the cleverness of the endeavour and the complexity of her allusions to other works of literature and acknowledge that there are some beautiful images and phrases.  But I need to balance that with my misgivings about the plot development at the end of the book, and my feeling of overload from a surfeit of fine writing.  Not sure.

My rating: Mmmm. 8/10??

Read because: My Australian Literature Online group had it as the September read

Copy sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library and then, when I was unable to renew because it had a hold placed on it, La Trobe University Library.

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