Five Bells, By Gail Jones

Flotsam and jetsam in a sea of experience
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The Independent Culture

The Australian writer Gail Jones – twice longlisted for the Orange prize and once for the Man Booker – here tracks the passage of a single day at Sydney's Circular Quay, where four individuals drift on a searing day. All are haunted by their past. Jones links their stories, some overtly through shared history, some more nebulously.

The most compelling character is Pei Xing, a middle-aged Chinese woman whose outward peace and benevolence mask the memories of a horrific youth, rooted in China's brutal politics. Tender memories of her educated parents are imprinted on her brain, but also harrowing experiences involving their murder and her own imprisonment and torture. Yet Pei Xing has found peace through forgiveness.

James, a medical school dropout turned teacher, is haunted by his conscience; he neglected his adoring mother, and his recent equilibrium has been ravaged by tragedy. He seeks atonement through Ellie, his lover from schooldays. Catherine, a Dublin-born journalist, is mourning her beloved brother. She has fled London, where her relationship with her lover, Luc, was engulfed by her loss.

Jones's lyrical prose is full of sensual contemplation of surroundings and slow-mo replays of the past which throw light on individuals. Flashes of poetry abound, as in this expression of the indelible tattooing of certain memories, that "persisted ... in this deeper-level recollection, deposited like radium in the substrata of his cells".

Readers who crave plot or resolution may be frustrated – a significant development occurs near the end, but isn't explored – and the languid pace and intricate detail may incite impatience. Certain recurring themes may seem contrived or artificial: Dr Zhivago, snowflakes (actual or metaphorical), migratory birds. For other readers, these will mesmerise.

Jones uses art to add richness and poignancy. James's sorrow is accentuated by his favourite artist, Magritte, having lost his mother as a child, and a similar emotional wrench and beauty is evinced from the metaphor of James's father over-stretching his delicate tailor's physique into an etiolated Giacometti sculpture. But Jones's mirroring of these images with tales of Luc's maternal grandparents seeing a tailor run amok and a young woman run into the sea are symmetries too far.

There are occasional lapses: the anatomy professor who also teaches clinical disease; the school trip with a single teacher to supervise the whole class; occasional tautologies ("cruel atrocities") and sentences that topple into the portentous ("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").

Ultimately, though, this is a story peopled by achingly real characters, memorably related in delicate, ornate prose, and throbbing with loss. Death comes to claim us all, it seems to say, so enjoy the transient glory of life while you can.