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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.