Five Bells by Gail Jones

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Five Bells by Gail Jones

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Luci Davin
Reviewed by Luci Davin
Summary: Four people visit Circular Quay, Sydney, and reflect on the experiences that have brought them there.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 224 Date: March 2011
Publisher: Harvill Secker
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1846554025

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It is a lovely sunny day in Circular Quay, a tourist hotspot in Sydney, Australia. This novel is about the thoughts and memories of four people, three women and a man who visit the place that day. None are locals. Ellie and James were teenage lovers in Western Australia, and are meeting up again after not seeing each other for years. Catherine has recently come to the city from Ireland. Pei Xing is a Chinese immigrant, now settled in Sydney. The novel is full of descriptive visual imagery from the first page onwards, and it is significant that three of the four characters are seeing Circular Quay for the first time.

I found all of the characters and their stories interesting, moving and sometimes sad. Catherine, James and Pei Xing are all dealing with grief – Catherine for her brother killed in a car accident, James for his mother and for another tragedy for which he feels responsible, and Pei Xing for her parents.

I was especially impressed by Pei Xing’s story, as she remembers her family’s sad experiences in the Cultural Revolution, and as the connection between her and the elderly woman she is visiting is revealed – her story is one of shifting relationships and forgiveness. My gripe here, which jars when reading, is that Jones seems to use her full name throughout, while the other characters with more English first names are just referred to as James, Ellie and Catherine – why not just Xing?

While I felt sorry for James, he was rather too pathetic a character to be entirely likeable. Ellie and Catherine were more sympathetic but not as memorable as Xing.

Five Bells is a short, character driven novel about thoughts and feelings and the senses (sight, sound, smell) rather than a plot based one, although everyone does have a back story and some secrets, some of which are eventually revealed.

Thank you to Harvill Secker for sending a copy of this book to The Bookbag.

If you like this type of novel, some further reading suggestions are Molly Fox's Birthday by Deirdre Madden, February by Lisa Moore or Walking to the Moon by Kate Cole-Adams.

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