Five Bells is a novel of singular beauty and power by one of Australia’s most gifted novelists Gail Jones.
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Five Bells Synopsis:
Winner of the Kibble Literary Award, Shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Prize for Fiction, the Adelaide Festival Award for Literature, The ALS Gold Medal, the Barbara Jefferiss Prize and the Indies Award.
On a radiant day in Sydney, four people converge on Circular Quay, site of the iconic Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Each of the four is haunted by memories of the past: Ellie is preoccupied by her experiences as a girl, James by a tragedy for which he feels responsible, Catherine by the loss of her beloved brother in Dublin and Pei Xing by her imprisonment during China’s Cultural Revolution. Told over the course of a single Saturday, Five Bells describes vividly four lives which chime and resonate. By night-time, when Sydney is drenched in a rainstorm, each life has been transformed.
I thoroughly enjoyed another title by Gail Jones, Dreams of Speaking in 2011 – it even made it to one of my ‘best of’ lists. With very high regard for Gail Jones talents as a writer and a synopsis describing strong characterization and disparate but interwoven storylines (right up my alley) I held very high hopes for Five Bells.
The prose itself was again an absolute joy to read. Gail Jones has a real talent at bringing a location to life, finding beauty in dark places, shadows in spotlight, magic within the mundane – making Sydney’s Circular Quay a character in its own right. This description of the iconic Sydney Opera House just one of many notable passages:
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.
Apparently this novel was inspired by the poem ‘Five Bells’ by Kenneth Slessor. Now having read the poem after finishing this book, I note the similarity of mood, symbolism and sentiment.
Gail Jones’ writing in Five Bells is intense and melancholic with bursts of beauty – like a flower blossoming in a desert.
The individual character stories themselves, all dealing with love, loss, forgiveness and redemption, were extremely moving. My personal favourite was that of Pei Xing.
The story’s intensity built steadily to a climax but ultimately I felt unsatisfied by the conclusion, or lack there of. Perhaps I missed something, but it just seemed like so much more could have been made of the threads available while still retaining a bit of artistic mystery. For me it was like a few New Year’s Eve firecrackers failing to ignite…
Recommended to those who enjoy meditative literature and appreciate artistic and lyrical prose.
BOOK RATING: The Story 4 / 5 ; The Writing 4.75 / 5
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Genre: Literature, Drama, Mystery
About the Author, Gail Jones
Gail Jones lives in Sydney and teaches at the University of Western Sydney. She is the author of two short-story collections, a critical monograph, and the novels Black Mirror, Sixty Lights, Dreams of Speaking, Sorry, Five Bells and A Guide to Berlin. Three times shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award, her prizes include the WA Premier’s Award for Fiction, the Nita B. Kibble Award, the Steele Rudd Award, the Age Book of the Year Award, the Adelaide Festival Award for Fiction and the ASAL Gold Medal. She has also been shortlisted for international awards, including the IMPAC and the Prix Femina. Her fiction has been translated into nine languages.