FIVE BELLS by Gail Jones


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Four characters are tethered to the past in this flaccid memory piece, the fifth work of fiction from the Australian Jones (Sorry, 2007, etc.). 

One fine summer day, they converge on Sydney Harbor. The cosmopolitan crowds! The Circular Quay! That world-famous cultural icon, the Opera House! It’s a backdrop but not a catalyst for a novel sorely in need of one. Two of these people knew each other as kids in Western Australia. They were clumsy but passionate 14-year-old lovers; having sex in an abandoned foundry is their most joyous memory. Now, 20 years later, James has sought a reunion. Unlike cheerful, robust Ellie, he’s a sad sack who went to pieces after his Italian immigrant mother died in a mental hospital. What they’ve been up to in those 20 years is mostly a blank. (There’s enough missing material here to build another opera house.) But we do know James needs to talk to Ellie about a girl’s death. Death is also on the mind of Catherine, an Irish journalist mourning her brother Brendan, her life’s formative influence. Why she had to leave her hot French boyfriend in London, exchanging her job with Reuters for an unspecified gig in Sydney, is unclear (more missing material). The fourth character is an elderly Chinese woman, Pei Xing, a longtime resident of Sydney. Both her parents were killed during the Cultural Revolution; Pei was imprisoned for two years. However, forgivingly, she visits her brutal female prison guard, now a stroke victim. The disproportion between deaths caused by one of the 20th century’s worst atrocities and the banal accidental deaths so upsetting James and Catherine throws the novel further out of whack; and a late attempt by Jones to link her characters through the surveillance video of a kidnapping falls flat.  

A failed attempt to weave past and present. 

Pub Date: Feb. 28th, 2012
ISBN: 978-1-250-00373-7
Page count: 224pp
Publisher: Picador
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15th, 2011


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