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Five Bells: A Novel [Deckle Edge] [Paperback]

Gail Jones
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

Feb. 28 2012

A Picador Paperback Original

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.


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Review

"Over the past decade Gail Jones has established herself as a significant presence in contemporary Australian fiction. Thoughtful, intelligent, and intensely lyrical…a novel of unmistakable contemporary relevance."---The Guardian (London)

"An intense…poetic tale."---Financial Times (London)

"Five Bells is a brilliant work, both explicitly Australian and insistently cosmopolitan…[and] establishes Gail Jones as one of Australia’s finest authors.…In the midst of pandemonium, traffic, and tourist hordes gazing at icons, Jones gives us individuals who are achingly alive, filled with apprehensions of beauty, love, and mortality."---The Australian

"Jones’s writing has the intensity of a dream…combining tension with lyricism."---The Times (London)

"A story peopled by real characters, memorably related in delicate, ornate prose."---The Independent (London)

"A novel that reaches beyond the glittering surface of Sydney to capture the rippling patterns of a wider human history with singular beauty and power."---The Canberra Times (Australia)

About the Author

Gail Jones is the author of the novels Black Mirror, Sixty Lights, Dreams of Speaking, and Sorry. She has been nominated for numerous international awards, including the Man Booker Prize, the Orange Prize, the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and the Prix Femina Étranger. She is a professor of writing at the University of Western Sydney.


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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Inner Music Aug. 18 2012
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s MRS.DALLOWAY and evoking Joyce’s story, “The Dead”, Gail Jones’s stunningly beautiful literary novel follows four characters as they move about near Sydney Harbour’s Circular Quay on a glorious January Saturday. Prospective readers who relish the plot-driven novel should be forewarned that given its lack of significant external action, FIVE BELLS is likely not the book for them; rather, it is a work for readers receptive to a meditation on memory and the inner life. Jones provides us with her characters’ responses to scenes around the harbour (particularly the lotus-like opera house), their recollections of the past, ruminations on the failures and losses in their lives, and their remembrances of seemingly small but significant and life-changing “moments of being” from childhood and youth. In the process, the author allows us to hear her characters’ “inner music”—as a line from Pasternak’s DR. ZHIVAGO puts it--a novel, which, by the way, all the characters know and allude to at some point in FIVE BELLS. Only two of the protagonists, Ellie and James, know each other: they share memories of childhood and adolescent sexual awakening in a small town in Western Australia. Even so all of the characters—Ellie, James, Chinese-born sixty-ish Pei Xing, and Irish journalist Catherine Healy--become linked, not only because they are all moving in the same milieu and responding to the same sensory inputs—a didgeridoo busker, a child’s squeal, flags and umbrellas flapping, signs of a coming storm, bats and seabirds, the movement of the crowd and ferries—but also through recurrent images: of water, in particular, (very Virginia Woolf); the colours red and yellow; lungs, and snow (very James Joyce and Boris Pasternak)—among others. Read more ›
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Amazon.com: 3.9 out of 5 stars  28 reviews
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Lives intersect at the Sydney Opera House March 12 2012
By Wixby Bonnet - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
Five Bells is the story of four separate lives that come together one Saturday near the Sydney Opera House. Pei Xing is a survivor of China's Cultural Revolution. After her imprisonment, she relocated to Australia. Catherine is haunted by the death of her brother in Dublin. Ellie and James knew each other long ago and are meeting to discuss something James needs to share. The four main characters have sorrow, guilt and secrets from their pasts. The events of this particular Saturday change them all in some way.

Although the present tale takes place in just one day, the author gives us glimpses of each character's life and shows what brings them to Circular Quay this day. While the stories are interesting and the language of the novel is beautifully written, the character development is somewhat lacking. It is tough to fully delve into so many main characters. I fell like this book should have been twice as long to give each character his or her proper due. I liked the characters and I wanted them all to find peace and joy, but it would have been more satisfying to just have more of the past, more of their feelings, more of a look at their futures. Overall, I enjoyed the book, it just felt a little bit empty and unresolved when I finished it.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars High Concept Literary Fiction That Doesn't Quite Make It March 7 2012
By John Jorgensen - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
Presumably you've already read the product description on this page if you've made it to the reviews, so you know the gist of this book: Four people all happen to find themselves at Sydney's Circular Quay on a Saturday afternoon in the summer (January--Australia, remember). As each goes about their business they find themselves awash in memories of the past, triggered by stimuli that make sense only to them in the context of a very private symbolism.

Certainly I've had days like that from time to time, and every so often I find myself looking at the strangers I pass on a given day--or those I run into regularly, but don't really know, like barristas at a favorite cafe or something like that--and wondering what story each of them carries around in their heads, invisible to those who are passing by but, perhaps, very profound and poignant in its own way.

What this book sort of made me realize is just how hard it is to get a feel for what makes someone else tick. Peek into someone else's mind, as we do for these characters, and we see a lot of stream of consciousness, one thing reminding that person of another in ways that don't make sense to someone who wasn't there when the initial memories were forged, nonsequential recollections of different incidents that allow us to see only the dimmest outline of the subject's identity.

And that, I'm afraid, is how I related to the characters for much of the book. Eventually I figured out what made three of the four tick, but not until they were placed in situations where they had to explain themselves to someone else, at least internally. One doesn't get a great understanding of another person through that lens, either; no matter how forthcoming a person might be, there's still a canned quality to their own self-descriptions, lacking a basic, fundamental rawness whose absence can't help but erode true authenticity.

Furthermore, it took forever to get to those points. That's my biggest criticism of this novel: It gets off to a very very VERY slow start, and unfolds at a glacial pace that would have me completely abandoning a longer book. Each character simply travels to and around the Quay for purposes we're not yet allowed to learn, running through memories at random. There are plenty of beautifully descriptive sentences and paragraphs (those abound throughout the book and are one of its greatest strengths) and a few touching scenes that could make for good short stories; sixty-year-old Pei Xing's memory of the day she received a new winter coat when she was seven is particularly beautiful. We're also struck by how the characters share a certain common symbolic language of memory, how this and that object or place or story or word can have significance to more than one of them, each in their own way. Interesting. However, while all this goes on, there's no sense of the book going anywhere or meaning anything. We're about a hundred pages in before we finally get around to some developments that give the plot meaning--and in a book that barely breaks two hundred pages, that simply will not do.

When we reach chapters four and five (the book is only broken up into six, each of them a cycle through the minds of each of the four protagonists) the book really hits its stride and at that point I could say I finally got to know the characters. James and Ellie were teenage lovers who drifted apart as they grew up and have arranged a brief reunion. The uninteresting Ellie apparently has nothing more on her mind than how nice it will be to see James again, which would be fine except that one gets the sense that she's still carrying the torch for him all these years later, that she's never gotten over his leaving and that this has defined her entire adulthood--which, if true, would be pathetic. (Some years ago a coworker and I amused ourselves by reading through various newspaper features over our lunch hour, and "Dear Abbey" was a particular favorite. Ellie reminded me of a parody letter we would sometimes discuss submitting to the feature: "Dear Abbey: When I was fourteen my girlfriend left me. Now I'm fifty-one and I'm still not over it. What should I do?" Ellie's only in her thirties, but she brought that fake letter back to me so clearly I had to stop reading and chuckle.)

James, on the other hand, has actually had a life since they parted, a pretty good one at that, until someone else comes to harm in a way for which he blames himself. He's reached out to Ellie in the hopes that she will be able to understand him and help him make sense of the catastrophe, but when the moment comes he finds himself unable to move beyond shallow platitudes and tell her what really haunts him. He's a powerful character; it's a shame his story is so bogged down in that of someone as dull as Ellie.

Then there's Pei Xing and Catherine. Pei Xing was born and raised in Shanghai during Mao's rule over China. A very happy childhood came crashing down when the foundations on which it was built were destroyed by totalitarianism. She survived the Cultural Revolution, but her loved ones did not. She moved to Australia in the 80s seeking a second chance, and found healing when a chance encounter with a Red Guard veteran who had once tormented her led to a powerful saga of forgiveness. Pei Xing was my favorite character by far, partly because I have some interest in the historical backdrop of her young life, and partly because the story of forgiveness, of two women being drawn together in their determination to turn suffering into a redemptive force, resonated with me. Undoubtedly she steals the show, as other reviewers have said. She also seems to have absorbed the bulk of the author's attention: According to an afterword, hers is the only story for which any research was done.

Catherine by contrast is someone I couldn't figure out. An Irish ex-pat, she's trying to move on after the death of her favorite brother in a random traffic accident. I found myself feeling sorry for her loss and wishing her all the best as she sought to find peace of mind, but beyond that I mainly just wished her scenes would be over and I could get on to reading about someone else.

As Ellie and James set out to the Quay to meet one another, Pei Xing and Catherine are connected by a series of chance meetings throughout the day in which they vaguely notice one another, gradually being drawn together--but never to a point beyond casual recognition. No real relationship breaks out between them, which is fine; the book is about the private worlds we each inhabit, after all, worlds in which anyone else we might meet is just a visitor, usually a fleeting one.

Then there's the fifth "bell," a small child whom no one notices until after the fact--which gets to my biggest problem with the book's final chapter, but I'll set that discussion aside for the moment. She never narrates a scene and we never learn anything about her. The only real purpose we see her serve in the story is to give Catherine and Pei Xing one more meeting. It's heavily implied that she's the centerpiece of a moment which connects James and Ellie to the other two characters, but it's never clearly stated, and neither James nor Ellie ever have the dimmest awareness of her--not through the mechanism that brings Catherine and Pei Xing to their epilogues, not in any way whatsoever. The girl's story is never resolved and we leave the book with her possibly still in the midst of a very dangerous situation. (Had James been able to save her, he might have found redemption for his earlier failing, but he never even realized she needed saving.)

This girl represents one of two game changers introduced in Chapter Six, and that's my second biggest criticism of the book, after the painfully slow beginning. I enjoy a good twist ending as much as the next guy, but not to the point that the ending is so twisted it breaks off from the rest of the story. The first half of Chapter Six represents a new development coming completely out of left field, not flowing from anything touched on up to that point, and changing the meaning of the story so thoroughly that it's like reading the end of another book altogether. I don't like that.

The second half of Chapter Six introduces another game-changer in the final ten pages, putting a very tragic period on the story of James and Ellie. Though it represented an emotional blow, I enjoyed that one a lot more. It felt like the sort of thing I had read the book looking to find.

Then the final two pages provide a really beautifully written epilogue as the author gently urges us to take our leave of Sydney and of the lives into which we've been given limited insight.

I enjoyed the book, but I also found it disappointing: the boringly slow beginning and annoyingly abrupt ending obligated me to knock a star off its rating. But the prose was so beautiful, two of the characters so compelling, and the concept so intriguing that a neutral rating would have felt unacceptably low. Four stars. Recommended, though not as enthusiastically as I had expected it would be when I first opened it.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "How we cherish those who give us our dreams." Feb. 29 2012
By Mary Whipple - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
In lush and often lyrical language, Australian author Gail Jones creates a consummately literary novel which takes place on Circular Quay, surrounding the Opera House, during one hot summer day in Sydney. Four major characters are dealing with personal losses and memories of the past which make it difficult, if not impossible, for them to participate fully in the present. Deaths haunt them all, and as they gravitate individually towards the Opera House, they relive events from their lives. Time is relative as the novel moves forward and then swirls backward during each character's reminiscences. Only two characters know each other. The other characters lead independent lives, and any connection among them will be just a glancing blow, a random event - one of the minor acts of fate. A mysterious fifth character, who materializes without warning in the conclusion, serves as a catalyst to bring the novel to its thematic conclusion.

Ellie, the first of the characters, is a small town girl who has lived in the countryside for all of her thirty-four years. She has come into the city to reconnect with James DeMello, the love of her life, who has contacted her recently after a twenty year hiatus. James DeMello, who became her lover when they were both fourteen, will be meeting her later that day. James abandoned his medical school studies after just one year, and he secretly dreams of the artistic life. A terrible accident for which he blames himself has made his grip on reality precarious. Catherine Healy, from Ireland, has come to Sydney from Paris to find work as a journalist, leaving her lover Luc behind in Paris. She has still not recovered from the death of her brother several years ago. The fourth character, Pei Xing, a widow in her sixties, has come to Australia from mainland China, having survived the Cultural Revolution which killed her parents and forced her to endure torture and a terrible prison term
.
Literary and artistic references pepper the narrative, adding depth to the themes of love, loss, and death. Artist Rene Magritte's painting of "The Lovers," Man Ray and Lee Miller's surrealistic painting also called "The Lovers," and a Giacometti sculpture all fit into James's reminiscences. James Joyce's "The Dead," is read at Catherine's brother Brendan's funeral; Gogol's story of "The Overcoat" parallels in some ways the red coat that Pei Xing has received as a child; and Pei Xing's father's translation of Dr. Zhivago echoes throughout the action. Ezra Pound and the Australian poet Kenneth Slessor, whose poem "Five Bells" introduces the action, add to the literary density. Images of snow, the stars, bridges, birds, water, and the clepsydra, a water clock, pervade the narrative.

Though some will find this novel a literary treat, others may question its structure. With four separate characters, three of whose lives do not intersect in any significant way, the novel is somewhat fragmented, and all the characters are not equally well developed. Ellie and Catherine are not very thoughtful. Why Catherine is in Sydney at all is an open question, and how much Ellie will learn about life remains in doubt. Sometimes the prose is weighed down by the elaborate imagery. Still the novel offers much of interest to those who enjoy highly literary novels, and the thematic focus and the setting are unusual and intriguing. Mary Whipple

Sorry
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Joyce meets Pasternak in Sydney, with touches of Woolf March 24 2012
By K. B. Fenner - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
The cover for this book and the blurbs made me expect something along the lines of Maeve Binchy--pleasant, interlocking stories of real people with slightly heightened concerns. I guess that's what this is--although it is more like three short stories with only a very tangential connection between two and only a circumstantial one with the other. First off, I should have read the blurb more carefully, because it took me a while to figure out what the Circular Quay was. Then, I needed to read when I was alert and not kind of snoozy, because there is a lot of lit'r'y verbiage relative to plot to go through. The stories are not overly gripping and the switching about doesn't help keep track of the threads. I would have preferred to read each narrative as a separate short story, since the interlocking aspects are so trivial.

The writing is lush, and rife with literary references--the sort of book you'd love to read if you had to write a paper on it. Unfortunately, I read more for diversion these days, and the stories were okay. I really don't get what the Five Bells is about, even after reading the epigraphic poetry excerpt at the front. I felt that a lot went over my head (I do have an honors degree in English lit), and that some footnotes would have been helpful.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting Read March 8 2012
By Tara Peterson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
This book is about 4 different individuals that visit the Circular Quay in Sidney, Australia on one particular Saturday. The story is told present day with flash backs into each one of their pasts. Each has endured some trauma in their lives but have preserveered to become the people they are today. Without giving too much away about the book, it is interesting to see how each of their present day lives are similar to eachother despite their very different pasts. It makes you wonder when you are on the train or at any one given location what has occured int he lives of the people around you. The fifth "Bell" in the book is a missing little girl that passes by each one of the characters that day. Although I think the book was well written, it did not like they layout of each chapter. I would sometimes get a little confused about which character I was reading about. I also thought that the little girl could have been developed a little more. I felt like the story just ended and I had so many questions that will never be answered. In the end, I found this book very interesting and was alway eager to find out what was going to happen next that I finished it very quickly!
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