Title: Five Bells
Author: Gail Jones
Release Date: February 28, 2012
Genre: Literary Fiction
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
It’s a hot summer day in Sydney outside the Sydney opera house. Four different people will travel through this space, called Circular Quay, over the course of the day. Though seemingly random, they each are connected to one another in some small way. Catherine is still mourning the death of her brother Brendan years after his death, while Ellie has traveled to Sydney to meet James. James is caught up in the death of a young girl, for which he feels responsible, while Pei Xing recalls the difficulties of living in Maoist China.
Five Bells is a beautiful work of literary fiction about four very different people. Jones’ writing is beautiful; it flows smoothly, softening out cracks and rough edges. Each of these characters is experiencing some sort of grief or loss - it’s part of what connects them and ties them together - and Jones’ descriptions of these emotions are simply stunning. She takes these difficult feelings and turns them into something poetic, worthy of song, making them a little easier to bear.
Of the four characters, Pei Xing jumped out the most to me. The horrors she experienced in China were so realistically portrayed that readers will want to weep on her behalf. She’s a widow now, in her sixties, but her best years were spent in Communist China under Mao’s rule. She has experienced so much loss, yet she still lives on, determined to make something in her life good. I admired her strength and resilience, as a lesser woman would have crumbled under the weight of her memories.
However, though Pei Xing was the most interesting part of the novel to me, she didn’t quite fit into the rest of the story. She was the odd one out; it seemed as though her story should have been reserved for an entire book of its own, as there’s so much to tell. The book also jumps around quite a bit among its narrators, and there isn’t always an indication that the speaker has switched, which can make for a difficult read.
Still, Five Bells is a beautiful, contemplative book about the complexities of life and the difficulties of grief. Jones has created very layered characters in James and Pei Xing (Ellie and Catherine don’t seem as well explored), and the setting of the novel really comes alive through her prose. If you love interconnected stories about seemingly random people, this is a book you should definitely explore.