FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Lost Souls in Sydney

Sydney becomes absolutely iridescent in Gail Jones’ Five Bells, the story of four hapless characters whose lives converge and overlap in Australia’s gorgeous city on a warm summer day.  If you’ve been to the city, particularly its vibrant center, you understand how mesmerizing the environment can be: Circular Quay, the bridge, the beaches, above all the opera house: “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 marveled 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 is in Sydney to meet her lover from twenty years ago, when they were both fourteen and the innocence of their sexuality had a purity because of its singularity.  There was nothing else to compare it to, no other people—certainly none of the later partners whose identities have long been forgotten.  She can hardly control her excitement, and she doesn’t understand that the past is another country, that it’s almost impossible to recreate.  We are not what we were.

Pei Xing knows what Ellie hasn’t learned, probably because she is much older and a survivor—many times over.  We first observe her, tucking a ten dollar note into the “waste space that was Mary’s,” a homeless woman whom Pei Xing usually chats with, but Mary is clearly out scavenging.  A refugee years ago from Mao’s Red Guards, Pei Xing is on her way, crossing Sydney, to get to her weekly rendezvous.  It’s a most unusual encounter because the woman she will visit, Mrs. Dong, is confined to a nursing home and is not much more than a vegetable lying in her bed.

The encounter introduces one of Five Bells’ major themes: forgiveness.  Years ago, before Pei Xing fled China (after the murder of her parents by the Red Guards) when she herself was in prison, it was Mrs. Dong who was her tormentor, her sadistic guard.  But such is fate that both of them eventually fled to Australia, where Mrs. Dong one day knocked on Pei Xing’s door, asking forgiveness.  That was years ago before Mrs. Dong became so infirm, and all these years later with their roles reversed, it is Pei Xing who visits her former tormentor each week and reads to the voiceless woman, helps feed her, comforts her.  As Pei Xing muses, “It was something difficult to explain…that there were forms of forgiveness that make life go on, and forms of reproach that hold history still [and we need] to live in the aura of forgiveness.”

It is only Pei Xing who understands the past, and her past was the more horrific than the others’.  She is sustained by moments of transcendence much like Virginia Woolf’s characters, with whom she shares a certain affinity.  Here, for example, a moment from her childhood, when hunger and poverty were always present:

“And when snow at last came, fitful at first, in the faintest disappointing sprinkle and then—oh yes—in a dense overnight fall, she believed that in some way she was personally responsible.  She had woken and there it was, layering the roofs and the trees, lining the handlebars of bicycles and piling the edges of the laneways, caught on stall awnings in the yard of the Elementary School.  Whiter than rice powder, with a bluish-mauve luster.  Softer than leaf-fall and more wind-dispersed.  You could taste it.  You could drink it.  You could swallow the sky.  Flakes settled in her mouth and on her open dazzled eyes.”

Then there’s Catherine, a Scottish journalist, briefly in Sydney, and still mourning the recent death of her bother in an automobile accident.  Another survivor, of course, but one of the walking wounded—far from at peace with herself and, in the midst of her peregrinations around Sydney, witness to another tragic event and a reminder how close we all are to random violence and gratuitous acts.  She’s as burdened by the present and the past as is James DeMello, Ellie’s former lover, who will finally meet up with her for the encounter both have felt with such heavy anticipation.  But James, too, has the burden of a recent tragedy and though he has ached to tell Ellie about it, hoping that she of all people will somehow succor him, he is unable to reveal to her what it is that has happened, what will make it impossible for the two of them to come together as they did in the past.

Sydney’s own past is also central to Gail Jones’ lush novel—especially the country’s Aboriginal heritage.  Historical sites, museums, Aboriginal paintings but above all the almost hypnotic dirge of the didgeridoo, a fitting atmosphere for these mostly lost souls.  And Sydney—like London in Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, New York in John Dos Passos’ Manhattan Transfer, and any number of memorable “city” novels—breathes on every page, permeates the consciousness of Jones’ characters whether they are newly transported arrivals to the metropolis or denizens with a lengthy connection to the unforgettable city.  Five Bells is an indelible account of four characters caught in time and space, in one of the world’s most memorable cities.

Five Bells
By Gail Jones
Picador, 224 pp., $15

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.  Email: clarson@american.edu.   

 

More articles by:

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

September 19, 2018
Michael McCaffrey
A Curious Case of Mysterious Attacks, Microwave Weapons and Media Manipulation
Elliot Sperber
Eating the Constitution
September 18, 2018
Conn Hallinan
Britain: the Anti-Semitism Debate
Tamara Pearson
Why Mexico’s Next President is No Friend of Migrants
Richard Moser
Both the Commune and Revolution
Nick Pemberton
Serena 15, Tennis Love
Binoy Kampmark
Inconvenient Realities: Climate Change and the South Pacific
Martin Billheimer
La Grand’Route: Waiting for the Bus
John Kendall Hawkins
Seymour Hersh: a Life of Adversarial Democracy at Work
Faisal Khan
Is Israel a Democracy?
John Feffer
The GOP Wants Trumpism…Without Trump
Kim Ives
The Roots of Haiti’s Movement for PetroCaribe Transparency
Dave Lindorff
We Already Have a Fake Billionaire President; Why Would We want a Real One Running in 2020?
Gerry Brown
Is China Springing Debt Traps or Throwing a Lifeline to Countries in Distress?
Pete Tucker
The Washington Post Really Wants to Stop Ben Jealous
Dean Baker
Getting It Wrong Again: Consumer Spending and the Great Recession
September 17, 2018
Melvin Goodman
What is to be Done?
Rob Urie
American Fascism
Patrick Cockburn
The Adults in the White House Trying to Save the US From Trump Are Just as Dangerous as He Is
Jeffrey St. Clair - Alexander Cockburn
The Long Fall of Bob Woodward: From Nixon’s Nemesis to Cheney’s Savior
Mairead Maguire
Demonization of Russia in a New Cold War Era
Dean Baker
The Bank Bailout of 2008 was Unnecessary
Wim Laven
Hurricane Trump, Season 2
Yves Engler
Smearing Dimitri Lascaris
Ron Jacobs
From ROTC to Revolution and Beyond
Clark T. Scott
The Cannibals of Horsepower
Binoy Kampmark
A Traditional Right: Jimmie Åkesson and the Sweden Democrats
Laura Flanders
History Markers
Weekend Edition
September 14, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Carl Boggs
Obama’s Imperial Presidency
Joshua Frank
From CO2 to Methane, Trump’s Hurricane of Destruction
Jeffrey St. Clair
Maria’s Missing Dead
Andrew Levine
A Bulwark Against the Idiocy of Conservatives Like Brett Kavanaugh
T.J. Coles
Neil deGrasse Tyson: A Celebrity Salesman for the Military-Industrial-Complex
Jeff Ballinger
Nike and Colin Kaepernick: Fronting the Bigots’ Team
David Rosen
Why Stop at Roe? How “Settled Law” Can be Overturned
Gary Olson
Pope Francis and the Battle Over Cultural Terrain
Nick Pemberton
Donald The Victim: A Product of Post-9/11 America
Ramzy Baroud
The Veiled Danger of the ‘Dead’ Oslo Accords
Kevin Martin
U.S. Support for the Bombing of Yemen to Continue
Robert Fisk
A Murder in Aleppo
Robert Hunziker
The Elite World Order in Jitters
Ben Dangl
After 9/11: The Staggering Economic and Human Cost of the War on Terror
Charles Pierson
Invade The Hague! Bolton vs. the ICC
Robert Fantina
Trump and Palestine
Daniel Warner
Hubris on and Off the Court
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail