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.