Five Bells – Gail Jones and the poetics of time and vision

Five Bells cover


A sophisticated and enjoyable read, Five Bells is the novel being studied in my Preliminary Extension 1 course Adventurous Voices which is in preparation for Navigating the Global  in the HSC course. Students should be totally familiar with the text before class work begins: read once to find out what happens, read again and write a detailed reflection of key moments with a personal impact for each reader, read closely for evidence of language features and note taking.

Discuss the cover(s) as there are some variations. Note the quotes and publisher’s synopsis:

On a radiant day in Sydney, four adults converge on Circular Quay, site of the iconic Opera House and the Sydney Harbor Bridge. Crowds of tourists mix with the locals, enjoying the glorious surroundings and the play of light on water.

Just as Circular Quay resonates with Australia’s past, each of the four carries a complicated history from elsewhere; each is haunted by past intimacies, secrets and guilt: Ellie is preoccupied by her sexual experiences as a girl, James by a tragedy for which he feels responsible, Catherine by the loss of her beloved brother in Dublin, and Xei Ping by her imprisonment during China’s Cultural Revolution.

Told over the course of a single Saturday, Five Bells describes four lives which chime and resonate, sharing mysterious patterns and symbols. But it is a fifth person, a child, whose presence at the Quay haunts the day and who will overshadow everything that unfolds. By night-time, when Sydney is drenched in a rainstorm, each life has been transformed.

How is the reader positioned by these images and comments?

Consider the poem ‘Five Bells’ by Kenneth Slessor. Jones, speaking at the English Teachers’ National Conference in Sydney in 2012, discussed elements of Slessor’s work which became useful tropes and inspiration. Students should be aware of appropriation and the different “dimensions of vertical and horizontal time”.

Read reviews, such as Shelley Cusbert’s from Book Depository

Gail Jones begins Five Bells with an evocative depiction of a sunny day in Sydney’s Circular Quay. I felt as if I stood in amongst the ebb and flow of the crowd, feeling the sun on my face, scenting the salt air, hearing the chug of the ferry and the squeal of a slowing train. From the corner of my eye I can almost see Ellie gazing at the water, Pei Xing exchanging a few dollars for an ice-cream, James frowning absently at the crowds, Catherine shading her eyes against the sun to watch the climbers on the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the delighted giggle of a little girl with pink clips in her hair.

From the first pages the language of this novel is powerfully lyrical. Jones introduces her characters by describing their reactions to the iconic landmark of the Sydney Opera House. For Ellie the building is an ode to joy, to James it’s white curves resemble predatory teeth, like those a shark. Pei Xing admires the harmony of form while Catherine compares it to the drooping petals of a white rose. It is these evocative descriptions that give us insight into the characters state of mind. Five Bells reveals the lives of these four very different people who are passing through Circular Quay on a sunny, summer day and we follow them until night falls. Ellie and James, once teenage lovers are meeting for the first time in years and separately reminisce about their past together and their lives since. Pei Xing recalls her life under the communist regime in China as she travels to visit her torturer, while Catherine mourns her brother, tragically killed in a car accident. I found the pasts of these characters fascinating, particularly Pei Xing’s story, but their present is largely unremarkable.

Little actually happens in this novel but it is almost impossible not to be caught up in the secrets of these characters lives. The lack of plot and momentum can be off putting, though as Five Bells is just over 200 pages it’s done before you realise it’s not really going anywhere. This is not a novel you read for a compelling tale but to admire a beautiful turn of phrase and the occasional stunning insight.

Had Five Bells a more commercial story structure along with the gorgeous prose I wouldn’t hesitate in recommending it but I think its rather pretentious literary bent limits its appeal. It is a worthy read but perhaps not an entertaining one.

Students should condense their notes into

Five Bells Character Table

Gail Jones


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