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"Five bells, the bumpkin calculus of time" (Kenneth Slessor)
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. The title is taken from a poem by Kenneth Slessor, which is about, among other things, memories of the past and people who are long gone.
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 Pei 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.
This review first appeared at www.thebookbag.co.uk
Format: Hardback 218 pages
Publisher: Harvill Secker March 2011
ISBN: 978 1 846 55402 5