I am a great believer in putting information into context, so before I begin I should mention that Five Bells is being hailed as ‘exquisite and moving’, ‘magnificent’ and ‘brilliant’. Clearly it has struck a chord with a large segment of Australian society. I wish I could say that I was among the faithful, but for me, the adulation is slightly puzzling. Five Bells isn’t a bad book. But it’s not a very satisfying one either.
Jones’ novel is inspired by the 1939 Kenneth Slessor poem of the same name, and shares its elegiac tone and Sydney Harbor setting. The story follows four diverse characters through a sunny day in the city. There is Ellie, the optimist; James, the depressive; Catherine, the practical Irish tourist, and Pei Xing, serene survivor of China’s Cultural Revolution. The fifth ‘bell’, a child, makes a fleeting appearance at the end.
Each of the protagonists is grappling with loss – dead children, dead parents, dead siblings. At its heart, Five Bells is about how different people respond to grief. Some people accept it and move on, some people flee it, and some people are frozen by it.
A story like this stands and falls on its characterisation, and for me this was where Five Bells stumbled. Particularly so with James; who came across as more fantasy than real man. An emotionally sensitive intellectual, with the dishevelled charm of an ‘aging rock star’, his pronouncements on sex are romantic to say the least: ‘women didn’t realise this: that the noise a man made when he came was of gratitude, simply to have been admitted’.
Then there is Pei Xing, the Chinese mother. Her ability to ‘read what is yet to come in the lines of a face’ is the sort of semi-mystical trait that is all too often attached to Asian characters in Western fiction. Jones’ desire to get under the skin of different cultures is admirable, as is her highlighting of an important period in China’s recent past, but the resulting character is a little too ‘orientalised’ by her Western creator.
The greatest strength of Five Bells lies in its clever use of place to draw out the nuances of character. The novel opens with each of the four disembarking at Circular Quay, and their contrasting impressions immediately set the tone for their personalities. Yet, as the novel progresses, these initial impressions become blurred. Each character thinks in the same flowery metaphors, and they echo each other’s opinions. Keywords recur in each narrative, and the character’s voices start to overlap. All of this perhaps deliberate; a way of emphasising our shared humanity, but it starts to become repetitive by the final chapters.
Ultimately, as with any story, your enjoyment of Five Bells will come down to your literary tastes. The book is not trying to shake up your views of the world. It doesn’t even shake up all its characters lives, for several of them it’s just another day in Sydney. The novel is slow-moving, and mournful, and there are clearly a lot of people out there who love it. It’s a book for those who like to savour the everyday, to see their private thoughts reflected in another’s mind. But if you don’t feel that connection with the characters, as I didn’t, you will be left unmoved.