Before I started to read Five Bells I had a number of impressions in my mind. The first was of Gail Jones herself, her petite face in the half-light of the corridors of the Arts department at UWA in the nineties when I was there studying literature. She was an academic at UWA and although I never had her as a tutor or lecturer I knew who she was and despite seemingly retiring personality she had a presence. Even then I thought I’d read one of her books at some stage.
The second was shortly before I started to read the book in question, which had been selected by the Subiaco Library Book Club, I mentioned that I was about to start reading it to a male library patron. He told me that he had given up on “that book”. He concluded by saying that it was book for “women”. So, I thought, what does that mean? I never really got to the bottom of it at the time and therefore dismissed it as matter of taste.
I’d also read that Five Bells was influenced by the Modernists and in particular Virginia Woolf, of whom I’d read The Waves (1931) and To the Lighthouse (1927). Despite such quality influences, or perhaps because of it, I cringed a few times in the opening twenty pages or so at the mannered and florid prose. It seemed that Jones was trying too hard to impress. Despite this Jones manages to settle the novel into a decent display of character building, in particular the characters of Ellie and James, two childhood friends now to be reunited. Ellie and James interior lives are fleshed out with their memories of childhood, their sexual connection as teenagers and their lives after that. Jones evokes a mostly satisfying interior world of regret, suffering, and joy. Their back-stories are played out against the tension of their first contact with each other for many years. The sections leading up to their reunion were certainly the most enjoyable for me. Jones evokes beautifully the bitter sweetness of interconnected lives truncated by the circumstances of dysfunction. An easy connect is created between the reader and the characters and is one of the novel’s strengths
The other two significant characters are both expatriates who have their own stories to tell. Pei Xing, an elderly Chinese woman who lived through the hardships of Communism in China and Catherine, an Irish woman trying to escape a family tragedy. These characters are also haunted by their pasts. This is the crux of Five Bells - time, memory, emotion and rich interior musings set against an evocative and symbolically laden physical backdrop, in this case circular quay and the water of Sydney Harbor. The success of Modernism’s influence on this novel is debatable, with some of the prose coming across as contrived. However there are some beautiful descriptive moments and the back-story of Pei Xing, who is perhaps the most intriguing character, is certainly fascinating. Pei Xing and her particular story could have warranted her own novel, even one laden with Modernist tropes.
The ending, of which some of my book club members found unsatisfactory, at least brings a concrete resolution for one of the characters. The swirling water of the harbor, the pain of the past and the intense emotion of the present merge into a conclusion that makes a sizable impact. If you are interested in the poem, Five Bells (1939) by Kenneth Slessor, that inspired the novel, then you’d better steer clear until after you’ve finished otherwise the ending of the novel will become all too apparent.