Five Bells
Gail Jones
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Buy *Five Bells* by Gail Jones online

Five Bells
Gail Jones
224 pages
February 2012
rated 4 1/2 of 5 possible stars

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Jones’s poetic meditation on time is as fluid as the cool, glittering waters of Sydney Harbour on which four characters gently float, all of them faced with difficult choices and arbitrary connections. Although this complex novel takes place in only one day, the author manages to unravel lifetimes of loves, desires, and regrets, exposing the essential mysteries of the human condition, both in the past and in the present.

Much like the genius of Virginia Woolf, Jones provides a window into society and family, giving us a studied exploration of consciousness in a vibrant state of flux and of the liquid, interpenetrating, shared qualities of identity. With Circular Quay at its center, Jones’s virtuoso narrative focuses on Ellie, who has landed in Sydney to reconnect with her old school flame, James; Pei Xing, who came Australia in the late 1980s; and Dublin native Catherine, who lives in a ramshackle flat in Kings Cross, just behind William Street's iconic Coca-Cola sign.

Filled with “corny delight,” Ellie finds her heart opening as she breathes in the blinding light of Sydney. James has tracked Ellie down through a mutual friend, and as she looks forward to seeing him, she remembers with a stab of lust, their secrets, talks and words, and their sly imaginings. Once ignorant kids filled with vague prohibitions and sexual platitudes, Ellie and James have not seen each other since she was fifteen, and she is curious as to why, out of the blue, James wants to meet.

Handsome and tall, James has spent the last months running from a tragic accident. Now, in Sydney, James’s past seems to be returning, leaving him swallowing tabs of Xanax in an effort to “suck down his own misery.” Downtown George Street’s plate-glassed and sparkling skyscrapers--indeed, the whole of central Sydney--seems to be bearing down on him. Even the glass-walled cafes of the Quay provide no retreat from the shame and regret that James carries within him.

On a ferry to the North Shore, Pei Xing sees the world like something she might have seen as a girl on the Huangpu River. Settling into the realization that she is old, she remembers life under China’s cultural revolution and her torture by the guards at the Number One Shanghai prison. Catherine is also stirred by scraps of memory when she sees a father guiding his child down the stairs of the Quay’s train station. She thinks of arousal and connection, and of Luc, the lover she has left in London, and also of her brother, Brendan. Restless and feeling the need to flee, Catherine wonders what she’s doing here in Sydney, in this glittering city halfway across the planet.

The opera house is moon-white, holding its arches “in great serious stillness.” As the fans of its chambers link together and then unfold, Jones tells her symbolic tale in exact same sequences like “a body bending to abstraction.” In radiant prose, she conveys the Bridge, the Harbour, and the ferries , each ablaze in a part of the world that seems perpetually awash in “combs of light.” The water’s refractive quality and its jumble of associations in turn reinforce this tale’s sense of constant forward acceleration.

At the moment one character chooses death, Jones enables us to see this apparently opposite choice with great clarity. In a subtle twist of destiny, time reverses and the patterns of the past flip and become more relevant than ever. Evocative and visually impressive, Jones connects to the reader by showing us a microcosm of life and of a fate that is both its source and its inspiration.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2012

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