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 throughly 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 obliged 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.