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Five Bells: A Novel

Five Bells: A Novel

by Gail Jones
Five Bells: A Novel

Five Bells: A Novel

by Gail Jones


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A Picador Paperback Original

On a radiant day in Sydney, four adults converge on Circular Quay, site of the iconic Opera House and the Sydney Harbor Bridge. Crowds of tourists mix with the locals, enjoying the glorious surroundings and the play of light on water.

But just as Circular Quay resonates with Australia's past, each of the four carries a complicated history from elsewhere. Each person is haunted by past secrets and guilt. Ellie is preoccupied by her sexual experiences as a girl, James by a tragedy for which he feels responsible, Catherine by the loss of her beloved brother in Dublin, and Pei Xing by her imprisonment during China's Cultural Revolution.

Told over the course of a single Saturday, Five Bells describes four lives that come to share not only a place and a time but also mysterious patterns and ambiguous symbols, including a barely glimpsed fifth figure, a young child. By nightfall, when Sydney is drenched in a summer rainstorm, each life will have been transformed by the events of this day.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250003737
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 02/28/2012
Pages: 224
Sales rank: 901,388
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.52(h) x 0.66(d)

About the Author

Gail Jones is the author of the novels Black Mirror, Sixty Lights, Dreams of Speaking, and Sorry. She has been nominated for numerous international awards, including the Man Booker Prize, the Orange Prize, the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and the Prix Femina Étranger. She is a professor of writing at the University of Western Sydney.

Read an Excerpt

Five Bells

A Novel
By Gail Jones


Copyright © 2012 Gail Jones
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9781250003737

Five Bells
1Circular Quay: she loved even the sound of it.Before she saw the bowl of bright water, swelling like something sexual, before she saw the blue, unprecedented, and the clear sky sloping upwards, she knew from the lilted words it would be a circle like no other, key to a new world. 
The train swung in a wide arc to emerge alongside sturdy buildings and there it was, the first glimpses through struts of ironwork, and those blurred partial visions were a quiet pleasure. Down the escalator, rumbling with its heavy body-cargo, through the electronic turnstile, which captured her bent ticket, then, caught in the crowd, she was carried outside.There was confusion at first, the shock of sudden light, all the signs, all the clamour. But the vista resolved and she saw before her the row of ferry ports, each looking like a primary-colour holiday pavilion, and the boats, bobbing, their green and yellow forms toy-like, arriving, absorbing slow lines of passengers, departing. With a trampoline heart she saw the Bridge to her left: its modern shape, its optimistic uparching. Familiar from postcards and television commercials, here now, here-now, was the very thing itself, neat and enthralling. There were tiny flags on top and the silhouetted ant forms of people arduously climbing the steep bow. It looked stamped against the sky, as if nothing could remove it.It looked indelible. A coathanger, guidebooks said, but it was so much grander than this implied. The coherence of it, the embrace, the span of frozen hard-labour. Those bold pylons at the ends, the multimillions of hidden rivets. 
Ellie gawked like a child, unironic. She remembered something from schooldays: Janus, with his two faces, is the god of bridges, since bridges look both ways and are always double. There was the limpid memory of her schoolteacher, Miss Morrison, drawing Janus on a blackboard, her inexpert, freckled hand trailing the chalk-line of two profiles. With her back to the class, there was a kind of pathos to her form. She had thickset calves and a curvature of the spine and the class would have snickered in derision, had it not been for her storytelling, which made any image so much less than the words it referred to. Roman God: underlined. The Janus profiles not matching. A simple image on the blackboard snagged at her feelings and Ellie had loved it because it failed, because there was no mirror and no symmetry. And because the sight of Miss Morrison's firm calves always soothed and reassured her. 
From somewhere drifted the sound of a busking didgeridoo with an electronic backbeat, boum-boum, boum-boum; boum-boum, boum-boum. The didgeridoo dissolved in the air, thick and newly ancient.For tourists, Ellie thought, with no disparagement. For me. For all of us. Boum-boum, boum-boum.In the democratic throng, in the pandemonium of the crowd, she saw sunlight on the heads of Americans and Japanese; she saw small children with ice-creams and tour groups with cameras. She heard how fine weather might liberate a kind of relaxed tinkling chatter. There was a newsstand, with tiers of papers in several languages trembling in a light breeze, and people in booths here and there, selling ferry tickets behind glass. There was a human statue in pale robes, resembling something-or-other classical, andbefore him a flattened hat in which shone a few coins. A fringe of bystanders stood around, considering the many forms of art.Janus, origin of January.Ellie turned, like someone remembering, in the other direction. She had yet to see it fully. Past the last pier and the last ferry, there was a wharf with a line of ugly buildings, and beyond that, yes, an unimpeded view. 
It was moon-white and seemed to hold within it a great, serious stillness. The fan of its chambers leant together, inclining to the water. An unfolding thing, shutters, a sequence of sorts. Ellie marvelled that it had ever been created at all, so singular a building, so potentially faddish, or odd. And that shape of supplication, like a body bending into the abstraction of a low bow or a theological gesture. Ellie could imagine music in there, but not people, somehow. It looked poised in a kind of alertness to acoustical meanings, concentrating on sound waves, opened to circuit and flow.Yes, there it was. Leaning into the pure morning sky.Ellie raised her camera and clicked. Most photographed building in Sydney. In the viewfinder it was flattened to an assemblage of planes and curves: perfect Futurism. Marinetti might have dreamt it. 
Unmediated joy was nowadays unfashionable. Not to mention the banal thrill of a famous city icon. But Ellie's heart opened like that form unfolding into the blue; she was filled with corny delight and ordinary elation. Behind her, raddled train-noise reverberated up high, and the didgeridoo, now barely audible, continued its low soft moaning. A child sounded a squeal. A ferry churned away. From another came the clang of a falling gang-plank and the sound of passengers disembarking. Somewhere behind her the Rolling Stones - 'Jumping Jack Flash' - sounded in a tinny ring-tone. Boum-boum, distant now, boum-boum, boum-boum, and above it all a melody of voices, which seemed to arise from the water.Ellie felt herself at the intersection of so many currents of information. Why not be joyful, against all the odds? Why not be childlike? She took a swig from her plastic water-bottle and jauntily raised it: cheers.She began to stride. With her cotton sunhat, and her small backpack, and this unexpected quiver in her chest, Ellie walked out into the livelong Sydney day. Sunshine swept around her. The harbour almost glittered. She lifted her face to the sky and smiled to herself. She felt as if - yes, yes - she was breathing in light. 
James DeMello was obstinately unjoyful. Even before the rattling train pulled into the station, he knew in his bones that he would be disappointed. He glanced at the leather hands of the old woman sitting beside him and felt the downward tug of time, of all that marks and corrodes. They resembled his mother's hands, the sign of a history he did not want. So much of the past returns, he thought, lodged in the bodies of others.James rose from his seat to escape the hands and stood clutching a cold metal pole. The train swung in a wide arc around sturdy buildings and through his limbs he felt the machine braking and the stiffening of bodies encased in steel. When the carriage doors opened he followed the man in front of him, moving towards the down escalator with his hands in his pockets.At the foot of the escalator everyone swung out onto the quay, a mobile mass, subservient to architecture. Before him were ferry ticket-boxes hung with LED light timetables in orange and people of assorted nations, queuing for a ride. There was a tawdry quality, he decided, and too little repose. A child squealed and he felt an elemental flinch of annoyance; the rest was cacophony and the vague threat of crowds.Turning to the right, James walked automatically, trailing behind others. There were shop-fronts decorated with arty souvenirs, there were little white tables with empty wineglasses, there were waiters clad in black aprons and haughty dispositions. It was too early for lunchtime and they were in merely indolent preparation. A man stood with his arms crossed, scowling, emphatically doing nothing. James thought of Sydney as inhabited by a tribe of waiters, a secret society of men and women united by their contempt for those they served, and with rituals of smug superiority and arcane rules. They met mostly on Mondays, when many restaurants were closed, and engaged in ceremonial meals at which they spilled food and swore.Umbrellas bearing coffee-logos fluttered in the breeze. James skirted one, then another, wondering if he needed caffeine.Then he saw it looming in the middle distance, too pre-empted to be singular. It appeared on T-shirts, on towels, even trapped in plastic domes of snow; it could never exist other than as a replication, claiming the prestige of an icon. Its maws opened to the sky in a perpetual devouring.White teeth, James thought. Almost like teeth. And although he had seen the image of this building countless times before, it was only in its presence, here-now, that the analogy occurred to him. The monumental is never precisely what we expect.At an Easter Show, long ago, he had seen the yawning jaw of a shark, the great oval of an inadmissible, unspeakable threat. Death was like that, he knew, shaped in ivory triangles. Death was the limp panic of imagining oneself as raw meat. Or even less than that; just a shape to be ravaged, just a drifting, edible nothing in blood-blurry water.At the entrance to the carnival tent, a sign read 'Monsters of the Deep' and an old codger with filthy stubble and an aspect of decay ushered him in by lightly touching the back of his head. He can still see the moment, those teeth gleaming in the brownlight, bleak and distressing. He can still smell it: the reek of stale tobacco and unwashed clothes, and an acidic stench, as though someone had pissed in a corner. When the tent flap fell closed with a soft pffth, sealing him in, James felt sure he would die there, swallowed into darkness as in the belly of a beast. Superstitious and afraid, he had placed his feet in a slender triangle of sunlight falling through the entrance. He glanced from his shoes to the teeth and back again; shoes to teeth, teeth to shoes. He could not look at the shark-jaw entirely, nor could he resist looking. He was a child terrified by what his imagination might suggest.The stinking man moved up behind him and James felt a hand on his back. He froze there, submissive, and looked only at his shoes, aligned with tied laces in the slash of lemon light. And then, twisting free, James turned and fled. He pushed at the flap of the tent, panicking, and fell forward onto his face.Why, he wondered now, does time shudder in this way, and return him always to this inadequate boy that he was, in short pants, and afraid, and seeing white teeth in a jagged vision? The experience of a few minutes, years ago, and no doubt an exaggeration.James turned, pissed off by this ridiculous memory-siege. No, no, no. Coldplay's 'Clocks' swam into his head: 'closing walls and ticking clocks' - it was the curse of his generation, to have a soundtrack enlisted for everything. 
James turned away and walked back down the pier. He saw the Bridge, he saw the ferries, he saw the peach-coloured façade of the gallery of contemporary art; it was hung with red banners advertising something or other. His gaze was listless, remote. Considering these sites unremarkable, dull in his own livid space, James turned his back to the Harbour and retreated to a café, as if he needed to defend himself from what might entertain others.People swept around him, each with their own thoughts, each - the idea was fleeting - with their own apprehension of what might undo a single life, teeth, a touch, a brown space held in time by a gape of open canvas. But the crowd was a collective, and indistinct. They were unconnected to him. They were blithely autonomous. The masses, he liked to call them.In the blue shadows of the café James found an empty chair with its back to the window. He was feeling slightly ill. He was feeling implausible. A waiter with a pumice complexion and a lank pony-tail took his order, professionally cool, and then slid away. One of the secret society, perhaps, a smarmy condescender. Chatter rose with the clack of cutlery and the chink of teacups, the infernal din of the coffee machine and the roar of steaming milk. Beyond that, what was it? The summer of Vivaldi's Four Seasons playing in a jangled slur. How he hated this: music treated as a background accessory.When his espresso arrived with a glass of water, James swallowed a tab of Xanax, sucking down his own misery. Chemistry, he thought, to change errant chemistry. To be neurally synthetic, to be in biochemical kilter, to concoct homeostasis from this haggard sick self. He might look in a mirror and be startled by a handsome return. He might yet recover.Every sound was amplified; the café was no retreat at all. The glass walls were percussive and strangely radiant. A rack of grimy magazines, from which smooth faces pouted, leant against the wall for the customers' lazy perusal. Everywhere around him James saw detritus - a serviette crushed into a flowery ball, ring-pulls from drink cans, a chocolate bar wrapper, its form origami, torn sugar sachets, food scraps, the bits and pieces of commercial junk people left everywhere in their wake, setting a litter trail, as in a fairytale, to be found in a mythical dark wood.Someone had left a tiny pyramid of sugar poured on the table.James pressed it flat with his index finger and thought he might sob.The traditions of the dead generations weigh like a nightmare on the brains of the living. A favourite quote. Karl Marx. 1852.Even the coffee was bitter. 
Pei Xing had been here many times before, but she loved the elevated train, rattling through a grid of ironwork that resembled the old Waibaidu Bridge, and the press of the crowds, and the echoing noise as people descended to the quay. Westerners, she had heard, were lonely in crowds; but this seemed so wrong, somehow, since there was a vitality, a chi, moving between every body, a collective spirit, a complication. Jostling, touching, feeling the population in movement, this was a beautiful thing. No one saw her, she knew; just a nondescript grey-haired woman, and an Asian at that.Can't tell us apart. All Ching-Chong-Chinaman.Her parents would not have understood this: living in Australia, finding a home here.Pei Xing turned with those around her and descended on the escalator. Before her stood a young man guiding his small daughter. He held her hand high as he nudged her forward. 'Careful now, sweetheart.' The child placed her feet gingerly on the moving stairs, watching them all the way down, as if afraid she might slip. She was pretty, her hair divided in plaits in Chinese-style, her face aglow and tremulous with anticipation and excitement. Pei Xing thought she might be from the country, seeing all this for the very first time. There was something tentative in her movements, and something wholly innocent.Pure heart of the peasant.It might have been the ripple of a dragon moving thus, these figures sliding on the escalator, and the way they all turned as onebody, sinuous and flicking slightly, through the tunnel of glare towards the water. 
At quay level Pei Xing bought an ice-cream from her friend Aristos. They had known each other a long time and one of her pleasures in returning to the quay was to exchange a few sentences with the old man behind the counter. He had come to Sydney when she had, some time in the late 1980s.'Hey, China flower!''Hey, old fisherman!''Still too skinny, China flower.''Still too fat!'The old fisherman laughed. It was a ritual they shared, an idiom of solidarity.Aristos scooped her favourite flavour - hazelnut - and pressed it with the back of his spoon into a messy double ball. As usual he refused payment, but detained her for a chat. His back was bad again, he said, and the arthritis was playing up. Voula was still nagging for a trip home he could not afford. Eleni was expecting their first grandchild, God be praised. And Dimitris, good-for-nothing boy, still drank too much.In return Pei Xing said Jimmy was still doing well in his business, a good boy, he tried hard. He was a loyal son. His girlfriend from Hong Kong, Cindy, was a lovely young woman.When Pei Xing reached up over the counter, she saw the future. Aristos looked vulnerable. Death was swooping towards him. She saw it in an instant: grey wings, a feathery presence, hung over his tired, flushed face. She saw his eyes softly close, as if in slow motion, and a sinking of the supple animate face into a hard fixed mask. She heard a breath exhaled, the tiny wind that separates this life from the next. And in this half-second she saw too how he had laboured and suffered, and how he now entered his intractable dying.There are things one knows but can never say. There are intuitionsthat rise up, irrefutably, and one can only bow one's head to Fate and stay sensibly silent. Flesh was always melting away, time was always churning in undertow. The history of peoples, and the slow dragging-under. For all this, the ice-cream, the crowd, the luxurious sunny day, no soul was exempt, Pei Xing knew, from sudden extinguishment. Aristos paused and closed his mouth, as if he had read her thoughts. He smiled, but was sorrowful. 'Ay! What can you do?' he said, shrugging his shoulders with extravagant melancholy, waving his spoon, looking to the heavens, signalling his interrogation of all that lay before him, the ice-cream, the crowd, the luxurious sunny day. 
Pei Xing looked into the multicoloured tubs arrayed in rows before her. They had beautiful labels: nocciola, limone, bacio, fragola.'You feed people,' she said softly. 'This is good. To feed people.'It was the only benediction she could summon, this small tribute to his trade. She wanted simply to impart compassion, and to tell him that she knew. His lined face crumpled. His eyes became moist. He knew too, she realised. Ah, he knew too.Pei Xing said goodbye, perhaps for the last time, and moved away slowly, trying not to consolidate her vision or to grieve in anticipation. Aristos waved, looking like a Greek Orthodox priest. His open palm lifted to the sky and hung for a few seconds in the air. He might have been a saint in an icon, already long gone.It was Pei Xing's lot to know things in advance, her particular burden. Even as a child she had known things, had seen death arrive early, had read what is yet to come written in the lines of a face. She turned, as one does when one glimpses the future. The body is intelligent in this way, instinctively facing and refuting. She moved from the two teenagers who had now claimed Aristos's attention. There was another old friend, Mary, whom she had wished to seek out. Mary slept with her belongings tucked in a corner under the railway arch, only partially hidden from thevisitors to the quay. Her plastic bags were visible, but she was away somewhere, bedraggled and roaming, searching for a drink. The plastic pile looked flimsy, as though it could be dislodged with a sneeze. Pei Xing leant into the waste space that was Mary's home, flinching a little at some rotten decomposition smell, and tucked a ten-dollar note where she was sure that her friend would find it. Then she stood still for a minute, looking again at the plastic bags, the sorry heap of a life, feeling a swelling of sadness for the inverted order of things, for Mary, now lost, her whole life a craving, for Aristos, who would die and be no longer by the water, for his wife Voula, who would weep, and never again see her homeland. 
Pei Xing waited in the queue and bought a ticket for the ferry. The man in the booth did not recognise her, though she had been his customer many times. She was glad it was one of the old ferries, green and yellow and wooden, like something she might have seen as a girl on the Huangpu River; the newer white ones, sleek and gleaming, were simply not the same. Supply, the ferry was called.Finding a seat towards the back, Pei Xing settled in and finished her ice-cream. The boat strained and creaked around her, rocking gently, then lurched away with a throbbing pulse she now and then thought of as human. People settled, talked on mobile phones, sent text messages that reduced the world and its vast feelings to a few shiny codes. All those swift, fidget fingers tapping into enigmatic circuits. All those micro-processed signs and electronic hallos. The man who claimed the seat beside her opened a book-sized laptop. It sounded a pleasant chime, G major, and lit up like a personal lamp.I am old, she thought, and turned her face to look through the window. Yes, I am old.There it was, jade-white, lifting above the water. She never tired of seeing this form. It was a fixture she relied on. The shapes rested, like porcelain bowls, stacked one upon the other, fragile, tipped, in an unexpected harmony.'He': harmony.She saw the Chinese character, wheat and a mouth; she saw the flourish of eight strokes of the wolf-hair brush. She felt her father's hand on her back correcting her posture, as he taught her calligraphy. Sometimes he corrected the angle of her chin, with the slightest of touches, with just the tip of one finger, then watched as she dipped, caught the ink, and tried a difficult character.The monument glided past. Pei Xing experienced the illusion that it was moving and that she was staying still. She looked back to see it floating away, diminishing, becoming an ornament, small enough to hold in the well of her hand. Someone leaning against the railing outside moved to block her view.Mary, where was Mary? Ah, poor soul. And Aristos, poor Aristos.Pei Xing felt the tremor of the ferry and heard the murmurous hum of its engine. She closed her eyes. She saw herself as others might: miniature, a Chinese woman with an inscrutable air. A kind of type, or an absence. Then she saw herself from the inside: those layers of self slowly, gently, time-travelling across the water, the child receiving a white thin-lipped teacup from the hands of her mother, the student in plaits taught to sit still with her hands in her lap, the lover opening arched spaces to the engulfment of a man's body, the mother bent, cloudy with joy, over her infant son's head. In the wilderness of leaving Shanghai, these selves had blended and folded; now, in meditation, she was able to fan them apart. This was her habit, these days, to see herself in this way, the concertina of a life in which she saw her own folds and crevices. I have lived many lives. There was something reassuring in this, not to be single but many, not to be of one language but several, not to have but one discrete past but a skein, and multiple. 
She must have dozed a little. When she woke, blinking, the ferry was at the north shore and the passengers were standing and ready to leave. There was a ruffle of bodies departing, voices lifting withtheir destination, handbags slung, or opened, or reached into for a mobile phone. Mozart sounded somewhere - or was she imagining it? - a trail of Cherubino's aria floating in the air. Outside was luminous. High trees moved in a breeze from the water. There were rich people's houses, and the concave sweep of a steep slope garlanded with creepers and flowers.The ferry bumped the small jetty of a paradise everyone took for granted. 
When Catherine stepped from the train, she dropped her ticket. Fuck; she needed it to exit.It fluttered under someone's running shoes in the transitional light of the station. But then the ticket rested and she lunged for it, and rose up holding it aloft like a botanical specimen, the papery petal of a rare orchid, found only in railway stations.On a wet black bough.She descended on the escalator and moved as one body with the crowd.'Careful now, sweetheart,' she heard a voice say to a child, and she was filled with poetic impulse and a disposition to tenderness. The child was a girl with sparkly pink clips in her divided hair. Her father held her hand above her head as he guided her forward and down. Catherine watched her swaying dress and her bare legs and the straps of her sandals. Some scrap of memory had been stirred that she could not quite capture.On ground level - quay level - Catherine looked for it immediately. She asked an Arab-looking man at a newspaper stand; he smiled kindly and stretched his chubby arm to the right. That way, he indicated, without saying a word.Catherine walked past serried ferry ports and cafés and the casual, milling crowds. There were lines for tickets on cute, old-fashionedferries, painted uniformly in emerald and gold, and people just wandering, or standing, or having their photographs taken. There was a human statue, stiffly inhuman, posing as a Roman god.And beyond the farthest, and down a curving wharf, there it was, nestling before her, its folded forms stretching upwards, its petal life extending. The peaked shapes might have derived from a bowl of white roses, from the moment when they're tired and leaning, just about to subside. Blown, that strange term, a bowl of blown roses. She had not expected intimations of wind and flowers from something so essentially hard and bright. She had not expected to be reminded, obscurely, of her own body.'Gis a kiss!'Catherine heard a Scottish accent, a trace of tipsy hilarity.And then: 'Up shit creek, that car; bloody cactus, that's what, done for, I reckon mate, trade it or what? yeah? what-do-ya-reckon? eh? what-do-ya-say?' Spoken in an overloud voice to a mobile phone.Catherine loved Australian accents, the way they rasped in the air. The conversation unrolled in a friendly snarl. There was French, too - she recognised the syllables she had first heard as a schoolgirl in Dublin - and fragments, what was it? - of sing-songy Mandarin. Catherine saw a young man lunge for his girlfriend. He took her by the waist, swung her around, and kissed her dramatically, with a succulent smack. He was the Scot, another visitor, like herself. He wore a NYC cap on his head and had the indiscreet, restive confidence of someone newly in love.And that was when she thought of it: beauty like a kiss.On a day such as this, a bright January day with light pouring from the heavens, when the blown quality was not disintegration but a token of completion, when other lives seemed everywhere to open and effloresce, it was easy to believe there was an eroticism inthe address of something beautiful. This was it, arousal, the pause of a new pleasure, the comfort of a sudden connection, intimate and unanticipated. In a kind of instinct of humility she bent her head, then raised it again, and saw the petals anew. 
Catherine found herself thinking of the lover she had left. She thought of Luc's mouth, its fleshy appeal, and the ragged scar on his upper lip, the mark left by playing with a corkscrew as a child. It was a sign by which she knew him, the groove that was his wound. When they made love her tongue sought it, with a pre-emptive kiss. She thought now of her lips swooping his chest, tasting his skin. She thought of her hands clasping his cool buttocks on a warm humid night; how lovely, in general, men's buttocks were, always unspoiled when other parts began to sag and discolour. She liked to watch him sleeping, face down, the way he hooked an arm under his body, the sweet and somnolent compression of his face. Even his snore had appealed, resonating in the depth of his sleep, making the sheets quiver, making him serious, somehow, older and more vulnerable. Catherine felt lusty here in public, standing at a distance from the monument. Beneath her sightseeing was this mayhem of remembered touch.And there was something else. As Catherine paused, she saw, to the left, the Bridge across the water, and the harbour, and a small ferry, chugging away to the north. Bridge, water, harbour, ferry: all were ablaze, all illuminate. This part of the world collected light as if funnelled double-strength from the sun. Perhaps some refractive quality of the water, or those shining petals, perhaps the geography of sheltered spaces or the winking skyscrapers on the far shore, perhaps these together contributed to an increased incandescence.Catherine fumbled in her bag for her sunglasses, thinking of Luc's pale shoulder, glimpsed from behind. She felt the brush,ghostlike, of an unshaven kiss. Elvis Costello's 'I Want You' trailed mournfully through her head.How did Australians cope with all this light? 
As Catherine sought a patch of shade and put on her sunglasses, she felt a fleeting nostalgia for dull sky and objects fogged over. Her mother's sad face flickered into remembrance, framed by a cheap nylon scarf and squinting in sea-spray. It must have been Sandymount, and the sea like liquid ash. It must have been just after. A week, no more. Midwinter. Mourning winter. Chrysanthemums, not roses.It was like a still from a fifties' black and white movie - the woman's face turned just so, panning to the light-sliced ocean, the tone Irish, miserable, and a strained soundtrack, a Bach cello. This scene may have been fiction, but it was already ineradicable.And now she looked across the wide, encircling stretch of the harbour, the enormous glaze of sun-fire and surface-dazzle stretching into the distance, and wondered what she was doing here, in Sydney, in Australia. Restlessness had caused her to move across the planet. The job offer was a year-long placement, but it was enough; she had felt the need to flee London. She could not have stayed there, with Luc, becoming heartless in the mire of her grief. She hoped he would forgive her, and join her, and understand why she had fled. The calm of their lives had been destroyed by her obdurate mourning. It had deformed their conversations, interrupted their contentment, filled to the brim all the spaces between them. It was eleven months now, and still she could not free herself. 
Catherine noticed the tiny human shapes of climbers moving in a line upon the Bridge. They were cartoon-like in their simplicity and vaguely nonsensical in their endeavour.How small we might appear. Going nowhere, just up and down again.Flags waved at the summit of the bow, like a mountain conquered. There was not a single cloud. The sky was a high dome.I beheld the Bridge.Beheld. Where did that come from? Since the death there had been incursions of stray vocabularies, as though current language was worn and deficient. Hearken. That was another. Hearken. It suggested gold-leafed manuscripts, lovely decrepitude, and paper so brittle it must be held behind glass.Catherine turned away, almost tearful, from a jumble of associations she could neither disentangle nor inspect. How confused this place had made her, this Circular Quay, turning on the curve of lost time and unbidden recurrences.Catherine glimpsed the Scottish lovers retreating along the wharf. They were almost skipping. His arm rested around her shoulder and hers slid along his waist. The utter fit of their bodies was a beautiful thing to behold.FIVE BELLS. Copyright © 2011 by Gail Jones.


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Reading Group Guide

The following author biography and list of questions about Five Bells are intended as resources to aid individual readers and book groups who would like to learn more about the author and this book. We hope that this guide will provide you a starting place for discussion, and suggest a variety of perspectives from which you might approach Five Bells.

1. How does the Sydney Opera House appear to the characters? What is its particular meaning and significance to each of them?

2. Teachers and mentors play vital roles in the characters' lives. Discuss how Pei's father, Catherine's brother, and James and Ellie's teacher Miss Morrison influenced them.

3. Pei not only forgives her guard and abuser, but cultivates a devoted friendship with her. Would be able to do the same?

4. Does the religious fervor of Catherine's mother have any influence upon her? Does she change the way her daughter views religion? How does she reconcile her mother's piety with her brother's atheism?

5. Why does James decide to go to medical school despite his deep aversion to gore? What does his reaction to the chicken reveal about his character?

6. Neither James nor Ellie ever forgot their young love. Do you think they would have made a good couple as adults, had tragedy had not intervened?

7. Dr. Zhivago helps Pei to remember her father. For what other reasons might the film resonate with her? How might the themes of the great Russian classics mirror those of Five Bells?

8. Why do you think Pei had made a routine of visiting with Doug Hua, Aristos, and Mary? How would you characterize her relationship with them, as opposed to that with her son? What does Pei mean to each of these people?

9. All the characters either observe or visit the Museum of Contemporary Art, but with mixed feelings. Why does Pei love it? Why does Catherine find it troubling? Why is James, an art lover who is smitten with Magritte, uninterested in the museum?

10. Five Bells is about four disparate people who happen to be at the same place at the same time. Did the book make you think differently about the people you pass by every day?

11. Pei and Catherine both take notice of the little girl with the man on the stairs. What do you make of Pei waving at Catherine, Catherine's kiss, and the bond between them?

12. The title of the novel is taken from the title of a famous Australian poem by Kenneth Slessor. Slessor wrote the poem to commemorate a friend who drowned in the Sydney harbor. How is James's life similarly eulogized in the novel?

13. Every one of the four characters has a heartbreaking death or funeral story. Which did you find most poignant?

14. What makes the "fifth bell", the little girl, so vital to the central message of the story?

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