On ‘Five Bells’, by Gail Jones

by James Bradley

GAIL JONES’ FIFTH novel, Five Bells, is many things: a love letter to Sydney and its physical beauty; a deeply moving exploration of the effects of grief and loss; and, perhaps most importantly, a luminous and shimmering reflection on time, memory and mortality. Yet like all of Jones’ novels, Five Bells is also a remarkably intricate creation: a highly sophisticated, thrillingly allusive web of implication in which a wide range of literary and cultural references are woven together, reinforcing and counterpointing each other in fascinating and often surprising ways.

The novel takes its title from Kenneth Slessor’s elegy for the journalist Joe Lynch, who drowned after falling from a ferry on Sydney Harbour in 1927. Slessor’s poem is rightly regarded as a masterpiece, an extraordinary feat of poetic compression that interleaves grief with a lyrical awareness of the space of the harbour and a meditation on the lingering effects of loss. Composed a decade after Lynch’s death, it illustrates the way memory and grief – ‘the flood that does not flow’ – continue to suffuse the present, eliding time and allowing the dead, or at least their absence, to persist in the lives of the living.

Something similar might be said of Jones’ novel, which examines the intersection of four individuals, all of whom have been deeply touched by loss, across the course of a single day at Sydney’s Circular Quay. The first, Pei Xing, is a survivor of the Cultural Revolution in China, during the course of which she lost her parents, was imprisoned and physically brutalised, and was finally dispatched to the countryside for ‘re-education’. The second, Catherine, an Irish journalist, is haunted by the death of Brendan, her beloved brother, in a car accident. The third, James, a former schoolteacher, is wracked with guilt over the accidental death of one of his students on a school trip and, more distantly, by the memory of his teenage sexual experiences with the fourth character, Ellie.

The novel deliberately eschews the emphasis of conventional narrative structure on interpersonal conflict to generate drama and affect, relying instead upon coincidence and the detailed representation of internal states. Although James and Ellie have arranged to meet, the encounters between most of the characters are both fleeting and coincidental. Even James’ decision to commit suicide by jumping from a ferry – the event that draws the novel’s thematic threads together – occurs alone and unobserved by any of the others, even if its eventual effect upon Ellie is easy to predict. Likewise, the interactions that do occur are largely inconclusive. James and Ellie meet, but their conversation is unsatisfying, leaving James frustrated and despairing over his inability to communicate the truth of the event that has deranged his life, and his desire for connection. Similarly, Pei Xing’s weekly visit to her former gaoler, Dong Hua (who in one of the novel’s less plausible twists of fate has also ended up a resident in Sydney), is constrained by the fact Hua has been left paralysed by a stroke and is unable to speak. In the absence of conversation, Pei Xing reads to Hua and, in a moment of extraordinary tenderness, cradles in her hand the ‘heavy, motionless’ head of the woman who once tormented and brutalised her, and feeds her rice porridge in the hope the flavour will remind her of the past.

As with all of Jones’ novels, Five Bells is also an intensely literary creation, alert to both the complexities of the other texts it invokes and the ways our awareness of those texts deepens and extends the resonance of the events it depicts. The most obvious of these texts is Slessor’s ‘Five Bells’ itself. At a narrative level, the novel reiterates the event that gave birth to the poem – not once but three times. The first and most explicit is James’ suicide. But it is also echoed in the drowning death of a student that has so affected James. Finally, and perhaps most distantly, it is visited through James’ fascination with the story of the death by drowning of surrealist painter Rene Magritte’s mother. Jones also incorporates Slessor’s poem into the fabric of the novel in the form of an ongoing play with its language and imagery. We hear the echo of Slessor’s ‘deep and dissolving verticals of light’ as James sinks into the harbour’s water, in the form of the ‘verticals of filmy light and fish shapes’ that break over him and the ‘black wet’ that pushes ‘its thumb-balls in’, and indeed in James’ reflection on ‘the downward tug of time’ as he arrives at Circular Quay. The novel’s engagement with ‘Five Bells’ is also visible in its exploration of the workings of grief and memory, and the way each of the characters carry the memories of those they have lost within themselves. Thinking of Brendan, how ‘he was no longer in the world’, Catherine finds herself worrying over the riddle of ‘how powerfully the dead continued, how much space they took up with their not-here bodies’. Likewise, James imagines Ellie as ‘a voice in his head…a passenger he transported’. Both experiences recall the final lines of Slessor’s poem, and the haunting identification it sets up between the poem’s narrator and the lost Lynch – his belief that he too felt ‘the wet push its black thumb-balls in’ and Lynch’s ‘eardrums crack’.

Alongside Slessor’s poem, Five Bells invokes Boris Pasternak’s novel Doctor Zhivago, placing it at the centre of Pei Xing’s family history – her father, a translator, worked for many years on a Chinese edition of the novel, a work that was both a source of pride and, later, the pretext for his torture and execution. Although the book’s cultural currency has diminished somewhat in recent years, Jones’ use of Doctor Zhivago is both fascinating and extremely clever, offering a persuasive parallel to Pei Xing’s experience. It also connects Five Bells to the tumult of the twentieth century and, more importantly, to the rootlessness of modernity. Certainly, it’s no accident that like many of Jones’ novels, Five Bells centres on characters who are either immigrants, travellers or simply displaced, or that its action takes place in Sydney’s Circular Quay, a place that is not only the hub of the city but connects it to the world (and, perhaps not coincidentally, was also ground zero for the dispossession of Australia’s indigenous peoples). Pasternak’s novel also acts as one of the threads connecting the different narratives of the story. Like Pei Xing’s father, Catherine’s boyfriend Luc is a translator with a fascination for Russian literature, ‘those weighty novels you fell into for weeks and weeks’. James was also a medical student for a time, although in the end he abandoned his studies, defeated by his horror for the body’s physicality.

There are numerous glancing references to other works as well – some literary, like Wallace Stevens and Ezra Pound, others drawn from popular culture. Given James’ love for the music of Bob Dylan, it is perhaps unsurprising that one of Dylan’s most famous lines, ‘no direction home’, should surface when Catherine considers the loss and dislocation of the convicts who landed at Circular Quay in 1788; likewise, the title of The Triffids song ‘Wide Open Road’ hovers just out of reach, a reminder of the novel’s larger preoccupation with travel and the interconnectedness of possibility and loss. Yet in a very real sense, the novel’s governing literary presence is that of a book that is never mentioned by name – Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. Like its engagement with ‘Five Bells’, the novel’s engagement with Woolf’s novel (and indeed, Woolf’s work more broadly) is both playful and extremely sophisticated. In a very simple sense, it is apparent in the way that Five Bells’ central conceit – the intricate web of coincidences that connects the lives of strangers – echoes Woolf’s depiction of the intersecting fates of Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Smith. However, it is equally present in the way James’ suicide parallels that of Septimus, and indeed that of Woolf herself. (This blurring of the boundary between the lives of novelists and their characters is used to considerable effect in Sixty Lights (Harvill Press), Jones’ 2004 novel.) Allusions to Mrs Dalloway also exist in smaller details, such as both novels beginning with characters stepping out into the brightness of a busy day, or the way Ellie asks herself on arriving at Circular Quay, ‘Why not be joyful against all the odds? Why not be child-like?’ Such musing recalls Clarissa Dalloway’s desire to be happy despite everything: ‘Such fools are we… For Heaven only knows why one loves it so…life; London; this moment in June.’

Given Mrs Dalloway’s fascination with the city – that great product of modernity –, and the way its geography shapes our consciousness, it is not surprising that Five Bells echoes these interests, both in the way it traces its characters journeys through the space of Sydney and its wider celebration of the city’s vitality. The latter is significant because Five Bells, which was written after Jones relocated to Sydney from her former home in Perth, can also be read as a song of praise for her adopted city, a celebration of the light and colour of the ‘livelong Sydney day’. More importantly though, it allows Jones to make a useful and fertile association between Woolf’s novel and the work of Marxist theorist Guy Debord, and to underline the manner in which Debord’s thinking informs Five Bells. Perhaps best known for the title of his 1967 book La Société de Spectacle, or The Society of the Spectacle, Debord argued that social relations in contemporary consumer society are mediated by images or ‘spectacle’ – a convergence of mass media, advertising and popular culture. These images promote and sustain illusions of freedom and choice that mask the deeper alienation inherent in capitalism.

For Debord, this false reality is given physical form by the environment of the modern city, which in a very real sense is the physical embodiment of capitalism and, more importantly, a vehicle of oppression. Equipped with this idea, Debord and fellow members of the revolutionist organisation Situationist Internationale proposed a series of strategies to resist the oppression of the spectacle, arguing it was imperative for individuals to find ways of inhabiting and navigating the city that rejected the degrading effects of capitalism by emphasising spontaneity, discovery and individual freedom. This impulse is given literal form in the various paths traced by the characters of Five Bells as they navigate the city, giving themselves over to the play of memory and experience, or what the Situationists called ‘drift’. It is further underlined by the allusion to James Joyce – and by extension that greatest novel of vernacular adventure, Ulysses ­– that is visible in Brendan’s work as a scholar of modern Irish literature, and in the invocation of Mrs Dalloway, which at least in part was written as a response to Ulysses. But it is equally present in the aesthetic sensibility that permeates the novel. Like the characters in most of Jones’ books, the characters in Five Bells inhabit overtly sensual realities, their relationships with the world mediated by a constant awareness of the moment that simultaneously extends and abstracts them from it. The novel creates a world that is ‘luminous’, its air soft with ‘skin scent and sensuality’ and floating echoes of Mozart operas. This quality is of a piece with the heightened reality of the novel in general, but it also embodies a tacit resistance to the blandishments of consumer culture and mass production.

Woolf, Pasternak and Debord are imposing presences to be conjuring with, and in the hands of a lesser writer they might well have overwhelmed the novel. That they do not is both a testament to the sophistication of Jones’ literary craft and a function of the novel’s success in communicating the lived complexity of its disparate cast, and their experience of the world around them. Part of this is simply the true novelist’s capacity to inhabit the minds of others; however, it is also a reminder that despite their considerable intellectual armature, Jones’ novels are deeply felt creations. Certainly, it is difficult to avoid noticing the way certain images and ideas intrude themselves into Jones’ work over and over again, whether in the form of her ongoing preoccupation with loss and mortality, or in the way certain images recur in separate works, such as the injured kangaroos in Five Bells and Dreams of Speaking (Harvill Secker, 2006).

In Five Bells, this preoccupation with loss is deep and profound. Not only do all of the characters bear the wounds of past loss, all of them are seeking – explicitly or otherwise – to find some accommodation with that loss. This is perhaps most obviously the case with Pei Xing, whose search for a way of living with her past has led her to not just reconcile with one of her tormentors, but to care for her. In this way her memories of the Cultural Revolution remain with her, close to the surface yet invisible. But more deeply, Pei Xing’s story is also about a sort of closure. As she realises after her first encounters with Hua, ‘…if there was no recovery within history there was no point to suffering. If there was no meeting, no words, there could be no escape from the hateful circle of vengeance, there could be no peace, there could be no future.’ It is this same peace that Catherine and, to a lesser extent, Ellie are seeking; it is also the same reconciliation with the past that James cannot find, and which leads him to make his tragic choice. In doing so, he not only closes the circle that unites Jones’ remarkable novel and the poem from which it takes its title, but also affirms the novel’s larger understanding of the way memory and the past flow through us, at every moment. For, as Ellie reflects at one point: ‘There was no conclusion in the matter. There was no cessation of desire. True feeling does not conclude; this much she knew.’

Further reading

Wark, M 2011, The Beach Beneath the Street: The Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International, Verso, London.

James Bradley is a novelist and critic. His books include Wrack (Vintage, 1997), The Deep Field (Sceptre, 1999), The Resurrectionist (Picador, 2006) and, most recently, Clade (Penguin, 2015). He blogs at cityoftongues.com.