Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Five Bells by Gail Jones

This is a novel which starts out slowly, but grows on you. It takes place in modern day Australia, mostly at Circular Quay in Sydney. There are four main characters, which are followed through a single summer day, but with flashbacks and recollections to round out the stories. Catherine, who immigrated from a devout family in Ireland and is continually thinking of a deceased beloved brother. Despite the sadness of her past, she is the most hopeful and light-hearted. Ellie, from Western Australia, is almost defined by her memories, they appear so much sharper than her current life. James has come to Sydney to reconnect with his first love, who he hopes will save him from the failures of his life. And Pei Xing, an elderly Chinese lady, who fled her homeland after imprisonment and a reeducation camp during the Cultural Revolution. She is probably my favorite character and the one with the most resonance, her thoughts and actions had a ripple effect on those who came into contact with her. And her ability to forgive is a lesson to anyone who takes her character to heart. I don’t know if I could have such a generosity of spirit.
Transportation in all of it’s guises is there, giving a sense of continual movement; buses, taxis, trains. I felt that there was something further symbolized by it all, but couldn’t decipher what. The passing of time is also a part of the story, not only as memories, but clocks themselves. And music of all types provides a back beat. It is seldom that in the written word that music is so evident as it is in this book. And words themselves form a touchstone, a kalideoscope, in many languages and references.
The characters return to the sight of the Sydney Opera House and what the shapes mean to them,whether as origami or praying people. The moody photo of it on the cover perfectly fits the book and how it serves as a hub to so many busy people passing it as they go about their busy lives. Little details made Australia feel so different, where the taxis are white and waiter’s aprons are black. In other ways, it’s a country much like America, where people have come from all over to make a new life.
Though my appreciation of the novel grew as I read it, there were a few flaws. One was that Ellie and Catherine were not drawn sharply enough and I kept confusing them. The other was an incident of an abducted little girl that was introduced late in the book and left unresolved at the end. It is unsettling, but perhaps the author wanted some added realism? There is a part of me that resents it, leaving the reader to worry about this fictional little girl forever. It mars what is otherwise a mournful, yet lovely, layered story.

Picador 2011 213 pp. ISBN 978-1-250-00373-7

6 comments on “Five Bells by Gail Jones

  1. Anne Brooke
    September 3, 2012

    Sounds really interesting, Jackie – and I do love that cover!

  2. Hilary
    September 3, 2012

    This sounds like a very good read – thanks for the review, Jackie. Just one thing intrigues me – as a bell-ringer, I’d love to know what the significance is of the title.

  3. Karen
    September 3, 2012

    In terms of movement – buses, ferries, trains, taxis, people – Circular Quay has it all. As someone who lives in Sydney, loves it, Sydney Harbour, the Opera House, and all that is has to offer, i believe I will feel at least some connection to the book. I appreciated the review, was interested to read your take on it. I have marked is as TBR. Cheers.

  4. Jackie
    September 3, 2012

    Thanks everyone!
    Hilary, the title is taken from a poem which was quoted in the epigraph. I looked to see if I’d written it down, but regrettably hadn’t. If I can remember to look the book up at the library, I’ll jot the name & author of the poem down & pass it along to you.

  5. adevotedreader
    September 4, 2012

    The poem is Five Bells by Kenneth Slessor- not cheerful but good!

  6. Pingback: Candid opinions from a crowded Den « Vulpes Libris

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This entry was posted on September 3, 2012 by in Entries by Jackie, Fiction: 21st Century, Fiction: general and tagged , , , , .



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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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