At the beginning of Five Bells, the four main characters separately wander Sydney’s Circular Quay and contemplate the famous opera house. To each character, the opera house symbolizes something different: to Ellie, who is there to meet her childhood lover, James, the building seems to represent the passive bowing of the present to the future, the flow of music and water; to James, it is white teeth that remind him of a shark’s jaw he saw in a museum as a child; to Pei Xing, a survivor of China’s Cultural Revolution, it is harmony itself; and to Catherine, it is both a bowl of white roses just past full-bloom, and her own body.
Each of these characters is obsessed with some element of his or her past, and the way they envision the opera house foreshadows how they will cope with “waking into the visionary present.” Though it is thinly plotted, Five Bells makes beautiful work of showing how our preoccupations with our pasts can usurp the place of the meaning inherent to new experiences. The characters are looking for something new without realizing that nothing can ever really be new.
Though Ellie, James, Pei Xing, and Catherine are each held captive by different elements of their pasts, they seize on the same elements of symbolism throughout, as containers for their shared desires. Because of something they feel was missing from their earlier lives, they seek both acceptance and a sense of finally being here and now or, as Jones repeatedly refers to it, here-now.
Ellie cannot forget the sexual relationship she had with James when they were just 14, and her sense of having failed him when he needed her. James holds himself responsible for the death of a child and seems to hope that a reunion with Ellie will stand in for the forgiveness he seeks. Pei Xing, as a young woman, was imprisoned, beaten, and put to hard labor during the Cultural Revolution, and is forced to reconcile her past and present when her former prison guard surfaces and begs forgiveness. Catherine, the least compelling of the four, struggles with memories of her dead brother, her disappointments with the field of journalism, and her break with her Irish Catholic family. The shared symbolism demonstrates the sense of belonging each character desires, when it crops up in various forms of the image of the Madonna and Christ, or the bodies of their past lovers, or music as a means of temporarily anchoring oneself in the present moment.
This flow of symbolism becomes a plot thread in itself, one which I found more compelling than the when/where/why of what physically takes place in the story. Though Jones makes frequent reference to Russian writers (Gogol, Pasternak), her most obvious literary cousin is Virginia Woolf, who also dealt in metaphors of time and water, and who relegated plot to secondary status in order to give stream of consciousness and internal development leeway.
The material itself, then, because it is the stuff of thought and not always of action, draws comparison to time and water whether the author chooses to articulate the similarity or not. In the hands of a less talented writer, the book might become as shapeless as water itself. But Jones keeps all the events of the story to one day, so that we sense a build toward resolution even as we’re unable to predict what form that resolution might take.
The book’s weakness is the aforementioned character, Catherine, whose troubles are a bit too loosely gathered together. James and Ellie have an inherent element of interest because they are the only characters who interact with one another for any length of time, and because their connection is romantic in nature. Pei Xing’s story is the most naturally compelling, because of its historical context and the truly tragic nature of her suffering. But Catherine remained vague and strangely inaccessible to me, as she seems to experience all the longing the other characters do without as exact a locus for her obsession.
Five Bells is not a book for everyone, and that’s a good thing. It was not written to appeal to a broad audience, it was not written to titillate, and it does not even seem calculated to touch the reader on a very deep emotional level. The effect of its poetic prose is, ironically, to stimulate the reader intellectually. It does one thing, and it does it very well: it explores the feeling we have of never being quite present, and whether it is possible to move forward by moving backwards. It is precise and effective, and deserves to be taken for what it is, for us to read it meditatively, not looking ahead to guess what will happen, but finding where it resonates with us here and now.