Gail Jones is one of Australia’s most loved and respected writers, renowned for both her novels and her short stories (gathered in two collections). And her critical acclaim can be measured by the long list of prizes, both Australian and international, that she’s either won or been shortlisted for – including three shortlistings for the Miles Franklin, two longlistings for the Orange Prize, and winning the Age Book of the Year (among other prizes) for Sixty Lights. In her fifth novel, Five Bells, Jones delivers a typically poetic, (less typically) character-driven meditation on Sydney, where she has lived for the past three years, centred on iconic tourist hub Circular Quay. Fiona McGregor – whose latest novel, the Readings favourite Indelible Ink, has been praised for its thoughtful, energetic dissection of contemporary Sydney – interviewed Gail Jones for Readings New Australian Writing series.
Circular 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, the key to a new world.
Gail Jones’s fifth novel, Five Bells, opens at Circular Quay with an exultant description of Sydney harbour. We enter the place via Ellie, a 30-something West Australian who has recently moved to Sydney. She is on her way to meet James DeMello, another West Australian who she hasn’t seen for years. By coincidence, that same morning Ellie’s path will also cross with those of the two other main characters who drive this novel.
A novel driven by characters isn’t what one would expect from Gail Jones. Her work owes as much to cinema as literature in the way it strings seemingly disparate scenes together to create a story. Intensely imagistic, one small moment is often the springboard and can resonate across the entire narrative. Never a simple exploration of drama for its own sake, there is always a greater philosophical inquiry taking place. Nevertheless, long after finishing Five Bells, I am still thinking about the lives of these four characters, the pasts that haunt them, and the different directions they embark on at the novel’s brilliant ending.
There is a flavour of Jones’s earlier work, of her own childhood perhaps, in the rural West Australian settings remembered by Ellie and James. Jones resists any literal interpretations. ‘Each [character] represents a kind of encounter with the novelty of Sydney. I do still tend to start with an image, not a character. The characters are visitants, as it were, after the poetics has been established.’
Down to Circular Quay, after Ellie and James, comes Pei Xing, a casualty of Mao’s cultural revolution who immigrated some 15 years ago. Finally there is Catherine, a young woman from Dublin who has moved to Sydney to work. Of all four characters, it is Xing who knows the city most intimately. Each week she passes through the Quay on her visits to a mysterious person who lives on the lower north shore. What unfolds for Xing in these visits is a reckoning with her past in China.
Jones’s work has always had strong Asian inflections. Sixty Lights is set partly in Bombay; one of the main characters of Dreams of Speaking is Japanese. Xing is one of the book’s most compelling characters, as connected to what is referred to throughout the narrative as the here-now, as she is soaked in her traumatic and seemingly removed history. Jones declares herself ‘enormously interested in the idea that Australia is in the Asian region and that a national identity, if one exists, ought to acknowledge that’. Part of the book was written in Shanghai on an Asialink residency, yet, ‘I went to China with no intention of writing about it; indeed it felt presumptuous. I have no systematic or deliberative attitude to writing subjects – they just appear – it just happens that I’ve travelled a lot in Asia.’
Through Xing we also discover Sydney’s west, a vast expanse all too often forgotten as intrinsic to the city. Xing lives in Bankstown, an area rich in Muslim and Asian cultures. She teaches at what is surely Jones’s same University of Western Sydney. I relished these sections, with their teeming sense of intermingled lives going about their daily business' unburdened by the self-consciousness that can veil a city’s iconic places.
It is perhaps not surprising that Jones chose to explore Sydney through foreign eyes. She arrived to live here just three years ago and is ‘still discovering it’. A prolific author, as well as a professor at the University of Western Sydney, she writes between 5am and 8am, before the university day begins. Despite the rapture in her writing about Sydney, the descriptions of steaming days and ‘skin scent and sensuality’, Jones claims no special attachment to Sydney. ‘I love Melbourne as much as Sydney, and when I arrived in Sydney was writing a Melbourne novel. But I stopped almost immediately to try to register the particular qualities of Sydney, exemplified, I guess, in some of the contradictions of Circular Quay.’
Circular Quay, a place of beginnings and endings, of constant movement, is the ideal locus for a non-linear narrative. Jones also declares herself ‘interested in the monumental and iconic aspects of Circular Quay, and the ways in which it might, despite its tourism, still afford a glimpse of something else. We tend to disparage tourist culture as always essentially shallow, but there might be genuine encounters with strangeness going on, and the inner lives of others at such moments might be more profoundly active than we imagine.’
Circular Quay is of course central to Australian history. For millenia an important fishing spot of the Gadigal people, then the site for England’s first penal colony, now the location of Sydney’s few remaining sandstone buildings, where harbour meets city, and part of the fabulous trinity completed by bridge and Opera House. Its beauty can’t belie the lives that have been decimated here. Only shallow readings dismiss Sydney according to its modern surfaces and seductive climate. Slessor’s poem Five Bells, a lyrical entrée into the novel without being its foundation, is itself a meditation on the death of one of Slessor’s journalist colleagues, Joe Lynch, who drowned in the harbour. Death swings through Jones’s novel too, in both personal and historical ways.
Five Bells also explores time as a fluid entity. How events, even entire lives, can be replayed by the memory in an instant. The past is obsessed over, rued and longed for by all of Jones’s characters: it lives in the present as vividly as anything here-now. Jones talks about ‘time-as-water, and also the ways in which unresolved grief, and indeed the past, seem to unhinge time. The idea that people are bells – responding to each other through resonances, chiming or forming sequences – was also compelling …’ The imagistic conceit at the heart of the book creeps up on you to form a truly satisfying, yet unforeseen ending.
Rooted in the modernist tradition, Jones’s work can seem at odds with the Australian voice, which tends to the vernacular and social realist. Yet her explorations of identity dislocated by migration, colonialism and atrocity could not have come from anywhere but this continent and region. Hers is a rare and refreshing vision, one that we need. In Five Bells the voice is more colloquial, but the prose shimmers with as much descriptive power as we have come to expect from this unique writer. This is a novel about so many more varied things than appear on a first reading. Identity, place, memory, grief. The redemptive power of reading, or life-as-text; the blueprint of adolescent sexuality; mental illness and its tragic legacy as family inheritance. And always Sydney, Circular Quay, the harbour, shifting through the lives of the four characters eternal as tides.
Fiona McGregor is a Sydney-based writer. Her most recent novel is Indelible Ink.