Five Bells, by Gail Jones

Purchased from Indigo.ca

I will admit that I have been awaiting the North American publication of Five Bells for some months, ever since I first came across the striking image on the cover of the North American version of Gail Jones’ fifth novel (I haven’t read any of the four previous ones). Yes, I sometimes do buy a book because of its cover (not often, I hasten to say) and this one drew me in immediately. I’ve never been to Australia, let alone Sydney, but I certainly am aware of that city’s Opera House and was intrigued by the powerful image from first sight.

That’s not to say it was just the cover that caught my attention. I’ve written previously about my interest as a Canadian in Australian fiction: the two countries have a lot in common and it is reflected in their literature — I drew some comparisons a few years back in this post and am delighted that it continues to attract regular attention.

And, finally, I was intrigued by the author’s premise. There are examples in all English-speaking countries of authors who opt to tell parallel stories from the viewpoint of a number of characters in their novels, but it does seem to be more prevalent Down Under — Elliot Perlman’s Seven Types of Ambiguity and Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap are two examples that have been reviewed here. Five Bells promised a similar format: the stories of four individuals who head to Circular Quay and Sydney Harbour where the Opera House is located on a vibrant summer weekend day.

Two of the four, Ellie and James, are actually on the way to meet each other for lunch. They grew up together (and were teenage first lovers) in Western Australia and haven’t seen each other for years. Both are recent arrivals in Sydney so this visit to the harbour for each is a combination of new experience and memory-provoking presentiment. Forewarned is forearmed: author Jones is fond of descriptive writing — here’s Ellie’s reaction as she arrives at the Harbour and spots the Opera House:

Unmediated joy was nowadays unfashionable. Not to mention the banal thrill of a famous city icon. But Ellie’s heart opened like that form unfolding into the blue; she was filled with corny delight and ordinary elation. Behind her, raddled train-noise reverberated up high, and the didgeridoo, now barely audible, continued its low soft moaning. A child sounded a squeal. A ferry churned away. From another came the clang of a falling gang-plank and the sound of passengers disembarking. Somewhere behind her the Rolling Stones — ‘Jumping Jack Flash’ — sounded in a tinny ring-tone. Boum-boum, distant now, boum-boum, boum-boum, and above it all a melody of voices, which seemed to arise from the water.

If Ellie arrives at the harbor with curiousity and optimistic expectation, James is the other side of the coin:

James turned away and walked back down the pier. He saw the Bridge, he saw the ferries, he saw the peach-coloured facade of the gallery of contemporary art; it was hung with red banners advertising something or other. His gaze was listless, remote. Considering these sites unremarkable, dull in his own livid space, James turned his back to the Harbour and retreated to a cafe, as if he needed to defend himself from what might entertain others. People swept around him, each with their own thoughts, each — the idea was fleeting — with their own apprehension of what might undo a single life, teeth, a touch, a brown space held in time by a gape of open canvas. But the crowd was a collective, and indistinct. They were unconnected to him. They were blithely autonomous. The masses, he liked to call them.

Character three, Pei Zing, is also a relative newcomer to Sydney. She was born and raised in Communist China (Jones uses that terminology to capture the attitude of the times) and was imprisoned and “re-educated” in the Cultural Revolution. Her father was not only educated in England, he worked as a translator (of Doctor Zhivago, no less) so the family was a natural target for the attack on “The Four Olds” and Pei Zing paid a price. In the present time of the book, Pei Zing is actually just passing through the Harbour area — she is on her way to her weekly lunch with the woman who was once both her jailer and torturer (you are going to have to read the novel to find out how the author puts that together).

And finally, Catherine: Irish, a journalist, also newly arrived in Sydney, by way of London. Today is her first visit to the Harbour, part of her discovery of the New World to which she has moved:

Catherine loved Australian accents, the way they rasped in the air. The conversation unrolled in a friendly snarl. There was French, too — she recognised the syllables she had first heard as a schoolgirl in Dublin — and fragments, what was it? — of sing-songy Mandarin. Catherine saw a young man lunge for his girlfriend. He took her by the waist, swung her around, and kissed her dramatically, with a succulent smack. He was the Scot, another visitor, like herself. He wore a NYC cap on his head and had the indiscreet, restive confidence of someone newly in love.

I’ve included those extended quotes in this review because they are typical of the book. While there is a lot of “memory” in the stories from all four characters, there is also a lot of the Harbour and the polyglot of weekend visitors. Each chapter of the novel features a section from all four — the reader is invited to experience it through their fresh eyes, but also to join with them in the personal memories that it provokes. Jones does have to bring the four stories together eventually, but she does it late in the book with a device that, at least for this reader, was one more of convenience than realistic plot development.

As I indicated at the start of the review, I very much wanted this novel to succeed and I’m afraid it did not. I wasn’t disinterested in the four characters, but none of them really came to life. And the persistent, extended passages of detailed description started to wear as the novel went on.

This is an unusual (and churlish) spoiler, but I think I discovered my problem with the novel after I completed it and read the three-page author’s Acknowledgements at the end of the book. Jones opens it with thanks to “my colleagues at The University of Western Sydney, especially members of the Writing and Society Research Group …. the solidarity of members of this group is deeply appreciated.” And she also thanks the Shanghai Writers’ Association for her residency there, with particular thanks to the support of two fellow residents, authors Madeleine Thien and Yukiko Chino. Thanks are extended to 36 more people — that’s right, 36 — who supplied help with various aspects of the novel and that doesn’t include the extensive list of published sources that Jones consulted.

I’m not one of those readers who expects every novelist to exist in a lonely garret and, unlike some, actually think that Creative Writing programs do add value more often than not. I can’t help but conclude, however, that the intriguing premise and promise of this novel somehow got lost along the way, simply because too many people were involved in advising the author. I frequently think that novels that disappoint me could have been vastly improved with one more re-write — this is one that I think would have been far better served by one (or maybe even more) less.

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14 Responses to “Five Bells, by Gail Jones”

  1. Guy Savage Says:

    Thanks Kevin. I’d considered this and had been leaning towards ‘no.’ You finalised it for me. On the other hand, I bought a copy of the Slap a few days ago. Part of my commitment to read more Australian books.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy: I’m not going to try to change your mind — I’d recommend both The Slap and Seven Types of Ambiguity over this one. I started Perlman’s new novel The Street Sweeper today and, 60 pages into it, am somewhat impressed.

    Incidentally, after you have read The Slap you might want to consider giving the Australian/British television collaboration of it a go. Mrs. KfC and I thoroughly enjoyed the mini-series.

    • kimbofo Says:

      I second the TV version of The Slap. It was by far the best piece of television I watched last year. The production values are very high.

  3. Guy Savage Says:

    I have a copy but will read the book first. BTW, are you planning on reading Richard Ford’s Canada?

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I will be reading Canada as soon as it is published. I’ve read most of Ford’s books and quite enjoyed them, although my response is not nearly as enthusiastic as many people’s is. He does spend a fair bit of time in Newfoundland, so certainly knows something about that part of the country.

  4. Ava Homa Says:

    Kevin,

    I can imagine the author’s disappointment when they read your review! :) I have to say your idea that having too many people involved in the project left a negative effect stayed with me for hours. Isn’t it also likely that they helped the manuscript?
    I haven’t read the book but your observation of adding an event to a plot more out of convenience that realistic plot development intrigued me. Intelligent and deep observations like this make me come back to this blog again and again. Thanks! :)

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Ava: I certainly appreciate the value that some trusted colleagues (and agents and editors, for that matter) can add by critically reviewing a manuscript. I found that the further I got into the book, the more I felt that it was simply over-written — when I read how many people had had input it seemed that perhaps this became almost a novel written by committee. And my experience in the business world is that committees don’t produce very readable documents. :-)

      As for the convenient plot development, I would have been happier if Jones had left the “Harbour” as the unifying element — that aspect of the book was working very well for me.

  5. Lisa Hill Says:

    I’m delighted you’ve reviewed this book, Kevin, and I’ve added the link to the reviews on my Miles Franklin Award Longlist blog page – because I haven’t read Five Bells, and didn’t plan to even before reading your excellent review. I have read two other books by Gail Jones, and for me they were overburdened by heavy-handed symbolism.
    But it’s a matter of taste, perhaps… there are plenty who love her work (Kim from Reading Matters among them, the link to her glowing review is on my page), and obviously the Miles Franklin judges admired it too.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Lisa: Thanks for that reminder about Kim’s review (link to her five-star evaluation is here) — it was one of the reasons I had the book on my “lookout” list.

      I did wonder as I was reading it whether my response would have been more positive if I was more familiar with the Sydney Harbour area. That was the aspect that interested me the most but even with a Google map of the area (and images as well) I had trouble getting a satisfactory “grip” on it.

      And obviously the character development worked better for Kim than it did for me. My version of your “overburdened by heavy-handed symbolism” was that I did find myself sometimes wondering whether all the adjectives and strings of quick observations represent a kind of “wheel-spinning” while the author tried to figure out what it was she wanted to say.

      (Those who do check Kim’s review will see why I was more excited by the prospect of the North American cover — there is nothing the matter with the UK one, but I sure prefer this version.)

  6. kimbofo Says:

    Interesting to read your thoughts on this one, Kevin.

    I had a conversation about this book with Lisa on her blog recently. Five Bells was by far the most literary book I read last year. It’s rich in symbolism and metaphor and even other literary references (specifically James Joyce’s The Dead). Not everyone likes this kind of writing and I have to admit that I only ever read one or two books a year like this — it can occasionally feel like the writing is showing off at expense of plot etc. but I forgive Jones because I think she’s superb at capturing place and the inner-most feelings of her characters. As an aside, Jones is a professor of creative writing, so it’s probably not surprising that she practices what she preaches! ;-)

    I liked the fact that the book feels like a loveletter to Sydney — Jones is from Western Australia and has only recently moved to Sydney, so she’s writing about a city she’s clearly fallen in love with. I’m from Melbourne so I’m not supposed to say anything nice about Sydney (!!), but the city, and particularly the harbour, is beautiful and shiny and there’s nothing more wonderful than rolling up to Circular Quay, where the trains come in and the ferries go out, on a summer’s day and walking along the waterfront or sitting on the grass in front of the art gallery watching the buskers and ice-cream sellers and the crowds passing by. I think Jones captures that perfectly.

    As for the cover, I agree the North American one is nicer. You’ll be pleased to know the paperback version, which has just come out in the UK, is the same as the one you depict here.

  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kim: I agree completely with the “loveletter to Sydney” ( or at least the Circular Quay area) observation. I have a fondness for novels that are set in urban areas that I know (Open City and Capital would be two recent examples) — this one was interesting particularly because I know nothing of Sydney. I even had to google a picture of the Bridge.

    I also appreciated the way that all four of the characters were “from away”, if I can use the Canadian idiom. Canada’s vibrant cities, like Calgary where I live, are characterized by the fact that the majority of residents are relatively recent arrivals, either from overseas or other parts of Canada — which means that there is widespread “discovery” of place and community going on all the time. Jones’ characters are in the process of doing that (Aside: It also features in Capital where only one of the central characters is a native Londoner).
    :-) I wasn’t surprised to discover on the end piece that Jones teaches creative writing. My grumpy observation, obviously, is that she does practice what she teaches.

  8. anokatony Says:

    I started Five Bells and quit after about 25 pages. Maybe I just thought all the various people gathering in Sydney a little hokey and none of the people’s stories really grabbed me.

  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Tony: All I can add is that if you didn’t like the first 25 pages it was probably wise to abandon the book — neither the tone nor the format changes as it goes on. At that point, I was quite interested in both the characters and the Harbour; for me, the novel started to lose its momentum about half way through.

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