SOME BOOKS ARE STRONG on plot, some on characters, others on setting or voice. Very few hit all targets equally well. In Five Bells, Gail Jones creates four characters that may never leave your consciousness, so indelibly does she draw them. Each of these four has their own interior music; their lives follow natural patterns. With her first few brushstrokes, Jones sets these lives in motion, towards each other, until a moment in time when they are, for a few brief seconds, within several feet of each other on Circular Quay in Sydney, Australia. It is as if the shape of the quay, the shape (or shapes) of the Sydney Opera House, the shapes of their lives align in those brief seconds.
Ellie is propelled in circles. She has a “trampoline heart.” When she arrives on the quay and has her first view of the Opera House her “heart opened like that form unfolding into the blue; she was filled with corny delight and ordinary elation.” She will meet James, her first love, who she has not seen in many decades. James is disintegrating in the wake of a tragic event. Jones gradually gives us the information we need to understand his proclivity for disintegration — his childhood, his very depressed mother, and other components of the soil in which he has grown to a man. When he first arrives at the quay he is “obstinately unjoyful.” He crushes a pyramid of salt on the table.
Pei Xing’s life has unfolded in the shape of a fan. A child in the Cultural Revolution, her traumas are myriad. In her new life in Australia, for example, she is forced into a chance meeting with the prison guard in China who beat and humiliated her so many years ago.
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.
Catherine also has a tragedy in her past. Her interior music is played by Bono and Dylan. Her life is fluttering out of control, out of her grasp. “Bridge, water, harbour, ferry: all were ablaze, all illuminate. This part of the world collected light as if funneled double-strength from the sun.”
Jones weaves these characters together; but more importantly, dare one say it, she weaves their auras together, the wake around them, the lives they have lived, the tragedies they have lived through.