Review: Five Bells by Gail Jones

Title: Five Bells

Author: Gail Jones

Published: Picador Feb 2012 (first published Random House Australia 2011)

Synopsis: On a radiant day in Sydney, four adults converge on Circular Quay, site of the iconic Opera House and the Sydney Harbor Bridge. Crowds of tourists mix with the locals, enjoying the glorious surroundings and the play of light on water. But just as Circular Quay resonates with Australia’s past, each of the four carries a complicated history from elsewhere. Each person is haunted by past secrets and guilt. Ellie is preoccupied by her sexual 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 four lives that come to share not only a place and a time but also mysterious patterns and ambiguous symbols, including a barely glimpsed fifth figure, a young child. By nightfall, when Sydney is drenched in a summer rainstorm, each life will have been transformed by the events of this day

Status: Read from February 12 to 13, 2012 — I own a copy {Courtesy Picador/NetGalley}

My Thoughts:

Gail Jones begins Five Bells with an evocative depiction of a sunny day in Sydney’s Circular Quay. I felt as if I stood in amongst the ebb and flow of the crowd, feeling the sun on my face, scenting the salt air, hearing the chug of the ferry and the squeal of a slowing train. From the corner of my eye I can almost see Ellie gazing at the water, Pei Qing exchanging a few dollars for an ice-cream, James frowning absently at the crowds, Catherine shading her eyes against the sun to watch the climbers on the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the delighted giggle of a little girl with pink clips in her hair.

From the first pages the language of this novel is powerfully lyrical. Jones introduces her characters by describing their reactions to the iconic landmark of the Sydney Opera House. For Ellie the building is an ode to joy, to James it’s white curves resemble predatory teeth, like those a shark. Pei Xing admires the harmony of form while Catherine compares it to the drooping petals of a white rose. It is these evocative descriptions that give us insight into the characters state of mind. Five Bells reveals the lives of these four very different people who are passing through Circular Quay on a sunny, summer day and we follow them until night falls. Ellie and James, once teenage lovers are meeting for the first time in years and separately reminisce about their past together and their lives since. Pei Xing recalls her life under the communist regime in China as she travels to visit her torturer, while Catherine mourns her brother, tragically killed in a car accident. I found the pasts of these characters fascinating, particularly Pei Xing’s story, but their present is largely unremarkable.
Little actually happens in this novel but it is almost impossible not to be caught up in the secrets of these characters lives. The lack of plot and momentum can be off putting, though as Five Bells is just over 200 pages it’s done before you realise it’s not really going anywhere. This is not a novel you read for a compelling tale but to admire a beautiful turn of phrase and the occasional stunning insight.

Had Five Bells a more commercial story structure along with the gorgeous prose I wouldn’t hesitate in recommending it but I think its rather pretentious literary bent limits its appeal. It is a worthy read but perhaps not an entertaining one.

Available To Purchase

Australia: @ Boomerang Books I @Booktopia I @Readings

International: @ Amazon I @BookDepository

Alternate Covers

14 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Leeswammes
    Feb 23, 2012 @ 05:46:39

    I LOVE the picture (I’m shallow!!) but I also love the story line. This one is going on my wishlist.

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  2. Marg
    Feb 23, 2012 @ 07:26:22

    I have been meaning to try Gail Jones since I heard her speak at Melbourne Writers Festival last year. I must confess that I wonder if she is too literary for me though!

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    • shelleyrae @ Book'd Out
      Feb 23, 2012 @ 13:36:23

      While I can appreciate a literary read Marg I find I rarely connect to them. I think this one is worth the gamble though – you never know!

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  3. Sam (Tiny Library)
    Feb 23, 2012 @ 07:29:44

    Sometimes I’m in the mood for these really character driven novels as a break from all the plot driven novels. This one sounds nice, especially as you described the writing as lyrical.

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  4. Cat
    Feb 23, 2012 @ 08:13:42

    I looked at this one in the library but the few pages I read had little appeal. I think ‘ pretentious literary bent’ sums up my feelings about it perfectly.

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  5. Lucy
    Feb 23, 2012 @ 22:49:10

    Shelley – that’s really interesting; we had many of the same reactions to the book but differed in our bottom line! I must confess to having rebelled slightly against some of the cultural references in the book – I found the Magritte stuff tiresome, for instance – and I was with you in hungering for a bit more action in the present day. (The missing kid device felt particularly underdeveloped, to my mind.) Each of the characters had such an interesting backstory, though, and that made up for a lot. Plus, I guess I’m just a sucker for a gorgeous description of Sydney, and Five Bells certainly delivered on that. I think maybe I should check out some of Gail Jones’s other work – perhaps others are a bit more plot-driven?

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  6. Bonnie
    Feb 24, 2012 @ 00:39:53

    I don’t think that I read enough literary fiction. I appreciate your thoughts on the movement of the story – I often find that I do read at a slower pace through literary fiction when there is not an engaging story line pulling me through. The writing does sound beautiful though and the characters interesting enough that I think it would be worth checking out!

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  7. Heidi Stabb (@heidi_reads)
    Mar 14, 2012 @ 20:21:03

    Thanks for this review. It’s been on my ToBeRead – well, any Gail Jones has been – for a while. I like the literary stuff, the atmospheric writing; especially at a shorter-ish length. So this has bumped “Five Bells” up my list. Thanks again.

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