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Five Bells by Gail Jones – four characters and Sydney.

November 17, 2019 15 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.

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