Gail Jones is a cerebral writer and a consummate wordsmith. Talking at last month’s Sydney Writers Festival about her novel Five Bells she was asked whether the ‘literariness’ of a book is important to her. Her reply was an unequivocal yes. The Dilettante’s kind of writer!
Jones spoke about the genesis for the work. She was on a late night ferry and the words of Kenneth Slessor’s famous poem, Five Bells, came to her. The poem was written as an ode to cartoonist Joe Lynch, who fell from a Sydney ferry and whose body was never found. Jones said she could well imagine the poem being written just after the event so immediate was its sense of grief, but noted it was written twelve years later. The ‘persistence of grief’ is something that she finds quite powerful – ‘you think you’re done with it, but the past keeps coming back.’
The way grief and memory inform the lives of the four characters whose lives are drawn together on this single day in and around Circular Quay is the cornerstone of the book. It is like, said Jones, the wake of a ferry – the way water is churned out and then eddies back in on itself, returning and revolving. Time and memory operate in the same way. Slessor himself, in his notes on his poem said that time was like water rather than the tick of the clock. Pei Xing, one of the protagonists of the novel, recalls a day when, as a girl, her father told the story of The Overcoat, how that story adds to the memory of the day’s other events. She thinks: “It was there, years later, like breath on a plane of glass, a human trace to see through.”
The wake of the ferry, the way memories fold back up to the surface of our life, form not just a thematic premise for the book, but they also form the basis for its structure. Here is Jones’ cerebral mind at work. The story starts out with the arrival of the four into Circular Quay on this sunny Saturday, then, like the ferry wake, folds back to their individual starting points that day, then comes back through the day in a lineal progression. But always through this progression the memories of past events and backgrounds constantly churn to the surface. It’s a wonderfully symbolic structure. It works on its own, but knowing why she chose to fashion it in this way gives it extra meaning.
Of course when you write a story that takes place in one day, particularly one in which the poetry of the prose is a strong feature as it is here, then you immediately place your work alongside other great ‘single day’ works, such as Joyce’s Ulysses and Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. To me the particularly poetic character of Jones’ prose sets it up against Mrs Dalloway quite markedly. There are other links between them too. The passage of time is central to both books. ‘Five bells’ is one of the half-hour marks of an eight-bell-long four hour watch on ships. In Mrs Dalloway we have Big Ben marking out the hours (which was Woolf’s original title for the book, so well utilised by Michael Cunningham in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Hours). There are other similarities too, but I won’t go into those as that will risk others’ enjoyment of them, but Jones said she was aware of borrowing from those books.
The other thing that I remember from reading Woolf’s novel is just how vacuous and unsympathetic the characters in it are. This brings me to the four protagonists in Five Bells, each of whom are new arrivals inSydney. Two of the four, Elise and James, grew up for a time in the same class in school in remote country town inAustralia. They were teenage lovers, and now, both inSydney, have agreed to meet up. When they were in school they shared a teacher who wrote unusual words on the blackboard, one of which was ‘clepsydra’: an ancient water clock, again reflecting the confluence of time and water. It’s their secret word, and it’s a lovely reflection of Slessor’s ‘time as water’ observation.
James is Jones’ first extended male point of view protagonist in any of her novels. He is a man who cannot let go of his tragic past, a past that even Elise is unaware of. Jones said she was keen to make sure he had some form of progression, some change throughout the day. I think she manages this, albeit somewhat obliquely (more on obliqueness below), for he decribes himself as ‘unconnected’ at the start of the story, but by the end – without giving the game away – he is in a way very much connected to the others.
Then there is Catherine, an Irish journalist, who leftDublinin part because of the death of her heroine, Veronica Guerin, the real-life journalist assassinated after she revealed the truth about the drug trade inDublin. Catherine is also struggling to cope, in her case with the death of her brother. Jones said that writing often is generated out of a sense of loss. We all lose people, places, childhoods, she said. Jones is a great supporter of PEN, and wanted to pay tribute to the heroics of writers including journalists and translators.
The fourth protagonist, Pei Xing, is a Chinese immigrant, survivor of the Cultural Revolution. Jones said she is the moral centre of the book, and it is easy to see why. She travels from her home in Bankstown, across the harbour to visit someone from her past every Saturday, someone to whom she gives forgiveness when such forgiveness seems impossible. Her scholarly parents were abducted and killed while she was young and she herself is later imprisoned. Her father was an interpreter and there are many references to interpreters in the story, including many references to Dr Zhivago by Boris Pasternak. The theme of translation was something Jones wanted to portray as part of the way we all connect with each other, and, I believe, how we connect to ourselves. Pei Xing’s ability to sense the future is used in a lovely way to offset the potential darkness in the story.
The four characters are drawn together by a fifth in an oblique way. Jones said she wanted to study the resonances between people, those interconnections, in the same way that the peals of a bell reverberate and speak to one another – which seems spooky when I think that the very same thing was the theme of my last read: David Mitchell’s wonderful Ghostwritten (see my review here). When we first meet James, he thinks, [p4]: “So much of the past returns … lodged in the bodies of others.” The fifth character is a child. Children are symbolic; each of us as adults carries the child within.
When asked by one audience member about the ‘lack of tension’ in the multi-protagonist structure, Jones said not all meaning lives in plot. Switching between characters creates risk, she acknowledged, but ‘plot’ was not the most critical thing in the book. I found each protagonist weighty enough to sustain my own interest. Perhaps because I knew the symbolic underpinnings before I read the book I gave it a little more ‘room’ in this regard, but each of the characters has a depth to them. They are sympathetic. We care for them. How Jones creates such depth in four characters in only 216 pages is to me a remarkable thing.
I have made mention of the poetic nature of the prose. There are wonderful descriptions of the iconic Sydney Opera House andHarbourBridge, but particularly the white shells. Jones eschewed the obvious ‘sails’ simile because ‘cliché is the enemy of good writing’. She spoke of the need not only to be different, but also to develop images which were culturally relevant to the background of each character. So for Pei Xing, the Opera House looks “like porcelain bowls, stacked one upon the other, fragile, tipped, in an unexpected harmony.” James sees them as teeth, whose “maws opened to the sky in a perpetual devouring”. Catherine sees them as petals of a white rose. Elsewhere, the shells are described as a fan of chambers; meringue peaks; ancient bones; origami.
There are some lovely links between characters too, the things they see, the people, the music of a didgeridoo player. There is also a recurring motif in the form of poeple waving to each other in greeting or farewell which I think is a subtle masterstroke – reflecting both the waves of the harbour’s water and the theme of connection between people. It’s wonderfully done.
Following on from this are other echoes, most notably the use of some of the images of Slessor’s Five Bells. Ellie thinks of ‘combs of light’ when she watches the ferries come and go at Circular Quay – an image used by Slessor. There is also an echo of the wonderful line ‘ferry the moonfall down’. And maybe there are others I have missed. It is subtle and well done.
I said above that Jones is a wordsmith and part of the joy of reading Five Bells is in coming across unusual words, like: insufflation, susurration, brecciated, betoken, and so on. There are also wonderful images, like an ‘apron of light’ spilling from a kitchen. Wonderful. Woolf would be proud. There are perhaps a few instances where it didn’t quite hit the right note for me; Jones said she reads a lot of poetry and finds its ‘obliqueness’ attractive, and occasionally the images veered a little too much to the oblique rather than concrete. Still and all, it is a minor quirk.
Five Bells is a highly enjoyable read. It ponders in a deep, sensuous, and dare I say ‘resonating’ manner the connections and reverberations between people, the strength of memory and grief – how they alter lives, for better and for worse.
This is the first of a three-book run I’m taking on after attending another session on Sydney in which Gail Jones, Ashley Hay and Delia Falconer spoke about their love of Sydney and the interconnectedness of their books. (See my musings on that SWF session here.) Next up another multi-protagonist novel set in Sydney: The Body in the Clouds by Ashley Hay.
The Dilettante’s Rating: I’ve decided to stop giving marks for reviews. It’s fraught with difficulties and is, in some ways I think, unfair to reduce a whole novel to a mere number, much as it is a neat idea. I started using them because my musings tend to be long, so I wanted to give readers an opportunity for a snapshot view, but that, perhaps, perpetuates the sense of ‘reduction’ that I now want to avoid. Let’s instead focus on words. (I reserve the right to change my mind though – I’m a Libran after all!)
Five Bells by Gail Jones
Source: purchased (and signed!) at SWF 2011