Home > 2010, 21st Century, Australian Literature, Highly Recommended, Jones Gail, Novel, TBR20 > Five Bells by Gail Jones – four characters and Sydney.

Five Bells by Gail Jones – four characters and Sydney.

November 17, 2019 Leave a comment Go to comments

Five Bells by Gail Jones (2011) French title: Cinq carillons.

Five Bells by Gail Jones my third book for Brona’s Australia Reading Month.

Sydney, Circular Quay. James, Ellie, Pei Xing and Catherine converge to Sidney’s harbour for the day. Five Bells is evocative of Sydney, the beauty of the bay, its cafés and its crowds, people coming there to take the various ferries to go across the bay. Each character gives us their impression of the Sydney Opera and the bridge, the most striking features of the area, besides the pure beauty of the landscape.

Slowly, going from one character to the other, they unfold their past for us to see.

Then she [Pei Xing] saw herself from the inside: those layers of self slowly, gently, time-travelling across the water, the child receiving a white thin-lipped teacup from the hands of her mother, the student in plaits taught to sit still with her hands in her lap, the lover opening arched spaces to the engulfment of a man’s body, the mother bent, cloudy with joy, over her infant son’s head. In the wilderness of leaving Shanghai, these selves had blended and folded; now, in meditation, she was able to fan them apart. This was her habit, these days, to see herself in this way, the concertina of a life in which she saw her own folds and crevices. I have lived many lives. There was something reassuring in this, not to be single but many, not to be of one language but several, not to have but one discrete past but a skein, and multiple.

Pei Xing and James were the most striking characters for me. Pei Xing is the oldest of the four and she’s at Circular Quay to take the ferry to her weekly visit to a nursing home on the other side of the bay. She had a hard life, growing up in China during the Cultural Revolution. She left to build a new life in Australia but she’s still haunted by her Chinese past and we gradually discover the scars left by the political events she survived. Pei Xing has the most terrible past of the four but she’s come to peace with it.

James and Ellie used to be neighbours when they were young. They were teenage lovers and they meet again for the first time in years. James comes from Italian emigrants, Matheus and Giovanna and her mother ended up raising him alone.

In this country in which men need not talk at all, except of workday details over a beer or two, Matheus gradually grew silent and then he was gone. Giovanna had seen him retreating for years, becoming thin and stretched as a Giacometti sculpture. One day he stretched into nothingness and slipped over the horizon.

James grew up with an anxious mother who wasn’t nurturing enough. She wasn’t a safe haven and he grew up without a secure emotional anchor. Ellie played that role when they were children and then teenagers. And now he’s in need of emotional comfort and he reached out to her. He’s desperate and looking for help but it’s not certain he’ll manage to ask for it.

Ellie lives in Sydney now and she’s happy and at the same time worried to see James again. He had disappeared from her life. Abruptly. And she never fully recovered from that abandonment, especially as it also came after her father’s death.

Catherine is an Irish journalist. She left Dublin to work in London after her role model, the journalist Veronica Guerin, was killed. Now she’s on the move again, from London to Sydney . She wants a fresh start because she cannot recover from her brother Brendan’s death. They were thick as thieves and losing him left a wound that won’t heal.

Gail Jones builds Ariadne threads between the characters. They have things in common, Sydney as a new beginning, traumatic deaths in their past, something around snow and Russian literature.

All the characters are in Sydney after leaving their old life behind. The city is a chance for them to start again and yet, they carry their past with them. All grew up without a full set of parents, their fathers died young. Due to the circumstances, they all lacked strong emotional roots that one builds in childhood or if they had some, they were cut-off too early. Ellie felt that James had abandoned her. Brendan’s death is untimely. Pei Xing lost her parents in the Cultural Revolution. James was not ready to lose his mother when she died.

Five Bells is contemplative and yet the story moves forward as the day progresses. I can’t reveal too much without giving out important details for future readers. The book’s construction is thorough and things fall into place neatly but not too neatly. I was drawn to the characters thanks to Gail Jones’s prose. I was in tune with her tone, the musicality of the sentences, like the gentle rock of a boat. I enjoyed her description of Sydney’s harbour and through these stories, she gives a picture of multicultural Australia. This is a country that welcomes strangers who want to start a new life. Living one’s country behind is never an easy decision to make and, in a way, Jones makes us think about all the ghosts that immigrants carry with them.

I discussed Gail Jones with Lisa when I was reading Five Bells and she told me that this author never worked for her due to heavy symbolism spread in her books. I didn’t notice anything is Five Bells but it doesn’t mean there isn’t any. Perhaps I missed it because I read it in English and it went over my head. Perhaps I’m not the kind of reader who notices things like this. I’m an easy public once I’m on board and Gail Jones embarked me within a few pages. So, who knows, it might bother other readers too.

PS: I wish I had time to write a billet about French characters in foreign books. Foreign authors keep puzzling me that way. Here we have a guy named Luc who comes from Besançon. How did Jones even think of this town? Because it’s where Victor Hugo was born? Luc lives in London and is a translator of Russian to French. I know that there are more French people in London than in Lyon (before Brexit, that is) but I wonder why she chose a French companion for Catherine.

PPS: I also wish I had time to write a billet about typos on French words and expressions in books written in English because there are too many of them. And with all the resources available on the internet, it would be nice not to see them anymore.

  1. November 17, 2019 at 1:01 pm

    Five Bells is a famous Australian poem, by Kenneth Slessor. Not that I’ve ever read it. But it would not be possible to re-use the name without referencing the poem. I haven’t read the book either and I probably should though I get sick of Sydney Harbour standing in for the whole of Australia (a bit like the Eiffel Tower appearing in every movie about France).

    I look forward to your post about the mistakes English speakers make in representing France and the French. Something we Australians endure too (English and US actors doing Australian voices!)

    Liked by 1 person

    • November 17, 2019 at 1:08 pm

      I totally missed the poem reference, of course. It’s good, in a sense. It means that the book stands for itself, without famous crutches to hold it up.
      I’m not sick of Paris in foreign books or films, I’m sick of quaint Provence in foreign books. 🙄
      I tend to avoid books set in France and written by foreigners, especially if I smell clichés coming up.

      I don’t think I have time now to write about that but l’ll start taking notes.

      Australian voices are dubbed by English and American actors?!! I didn’t know that. We don’t do that for Québécois. (they put subtitles if needed)

      Liked by 1 person

      • November 23, 2019 at 12:15 am

        I suspect that the infamous example that Bill is referring to, is Meryl Streep playing an Australian in the 1988 movie Evil Angels about the events surrounding the dingo stealing baby at Uluru. Her accent was laughable at best, deplorable in every other scene. But, many other actors have tried (& failed) too.


  2. November 18, 2019 at 7:05 pm

    I like the sound of this, the way you describe her style is very appealing.

    I didn’t know there were more French people in London than in Lyon! I live in London and I used to work in an area with a large French population – I could walk the 10 minutes from the tube to my workplace and only hear French spoken the whole time – it saddens me so much to think that Brexit could change all that.

    I’d be very interested to read your article on French typos in English – in this day and age with all the resources available it’s unacceptable laziness for that to happen.


    • November 18, 2019 at 9:02 pm

      I think it’s worth reading.

      I’ll take notes when I see typos and wrong French phrases and I’ll try to write something.


  3. November 19, 2019 at 4:41 pm

    I really loved this book when I read it a few years back. It is brimful of symbolism and is alive with musical references. I’m glad you enjoyed it.


    • November 20, 2019 at 9:57 pm

      I thought it was a wonderful book. Obviously, I missed a lot of symbolism and references but I still had a lovely reading time. I was engaged at the characters’ side and I wanted to know them better.
      Have you read any other book by her? If yes, which one would you recommend?


  4. November 23, 2019 at 12:23 am

    I read Jones’ The Death of Noah Glass earlier this year and loved it. I had to research to understand some of the art and music references, but I really adored her views of Sydney throughout the book. She captures the light, smells, textures & sounds perfectly. But lots of people have read this book without bothering with the symbolism and just enjoyed a story about 2 siblings after the loss of their father in slightly suspicious circumstances.

    I plan to read Five Bells one day (in conjunction with the poem). Your review has certainly made it sound tempting to me. Now that I’ve lived in Sydney for 10 yrs, right in the midst of the beautiful harbour and it’s working life, I’ve come to appreciate it even more than I did before as a sometimes visitor.


    • November 24, 2019 at 6:01 pm

      Thanks for the message and the recommendation. It’s nice that her books are multilayered. I missed the symbolism, probably because I’m not Australian, English is not my native language and I’m not cultured enough. But I still enjoyed spending time with the characters, reading about their Sydney and their lives.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. November 24, 2019 at 7:23 pm

    I almost bought this at one time but passed over it. Still not sure I’d like this.


    • November 24, 2019 at 11:12 pm

      I don’t know if you’d like it.


      • November 25, 2019 at 1:28 am

        These days if I’m not sure, I pass and wait.


        • November 25, 2019 at 2:40 pm

          That’s a safe bet, I tend to do that too.


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