A hymn to Slessor’s famous elegy
by Gail Jones
Vintage, $29.95 pb, 224 pp, 9781864710601
At the heart of Gail Jones’s Five Bells is a hymn to Kenneth Slessor’s dazzling elegy of the same name, published in 1939. Slessor wrote his poem after the death of journalist Joe Lynch, who fell from a ferry and drowned in Sydney Harbour. The poem imagines the death and harbour burial of Lynch, and evokes grief and memory through fractured images of water, submersion, and storm. It is a poem concerned with time, and the ways emotion disrupts time, and memory: ‘the flood that does not flow.’ It is also about place and displacement. Jones’s novel, too, revolves around grief’s disruptions, and the Circular Quay setting becomes the focus of its action on a single Saturday, and its meditation on memory, trauma, and resilience. She includes slivers of the poem as well as versions of its images.
When the ABC conducted a poll to discover Australia’s favourite poem, twenty thousand votes were cast, and ‘Five Bells’ was the winner. Naming a book after a poem, and making the poem central, as Jones does in intuitive and subtle ways, gestures towards a deep allegiance, which, apparently, large numbers of readers share. Knowing the poem well, and sharing Jones’s sense of its centrality to an imagining of the work of mourning and of the spaces of Sydney, I find her novel shimmers with recollections of ‘Five Bells’.
Yet the novel could be read without such a deep affinity with the poem. The entwined narratives of her four characters are immediately captivating and are connected by their visiting Circular Quay on a Sydney day that seems made for the tourists who converge there. Two of these characters have arranged to meet. Ellie, who has moved to Sydney to embark on a PhD, and James, a teacher, have not seen one another for years, but once shared a remarkable connection. At fourteen, their strong imaginative bond became a joyful sexual exploration. They discovered sex away from limiting conventions of self-conscious sexiness, and found in one another a sense of profound union. Their sex was ‘untutored and without any deception’. Ellie’s memories of their relationship are exquisite. James, too, yearns for their connection, but is riven by self-loathing and a darkness, the source of which is not revealed until late in the novel.
Their meeting itself is awkward and unsatisfying, but there is a sense throughout the work of another kind of meeting that transcends the irritations of restaurant stiffness and stumbling conversation. Again and again their memories resonate, and through this resonance Jones evokes rare kinds of connection capable of retaining their intimacy and charge, and illuminating people’s lives. James comes to Ellie because their remembered bond is strong enough for him to believe in its possibilities to console and renew him, despite the depth of his psychological injuries. The two other characters are Catherine, an Irish woman mourning her much-loved brother, and Pei Xing, whose weekly visits to another Chinese woman encapsulate a gracious kind of bearing witness and an active meditation on the possibilities of forgiveness.
In tracing the connections between characters, both actual and in terms of similar thoughts, observations, and reactions, the novel evokes another work beyond ‘Five Bells’ and Dr Zhivago, the other work with which several characters are imaginatively and emotionally imprinted. As they wander around these urban spaces, freighted with memories of desire and trauma, the characters witness some of the same events – one of which comes to be crucial – and experience in different ways the same place. Each is moved, at times, by sudden revelations that recall modernist ideas of epiphany. The skeins of connection between Ellie, who is ultimately optimistic, and James, whose tragedy extends into the novel’s shocking final movements, recalls the intuitive connection between Virginia Woolf’s Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Warren Smith, although the latter relationship is entirely intuitive and lacks the kind of history that James and Ellie have.
Like Slessor’s poem, Woolf’s novel expresses, in its fragmented structure and stream of consciousness, ways in which trauma makes impossible conventional narrative modes and ways of thinking. For all Jones’s characters, more or less traumatic experience is remembered and present, and this is also at the heart of Woolf’s radical novel Mrs Dalloway (1925). The structure of Jones’s novel, with its four characters’ narratives, is perhaps closer to Woolf’s The Waves (1931), but motifs of walking through the city and the ways the present captures the past, as well as the centrality of the entwined pair of characters, are very much the territory of Mrs Dalloway.
This perhaps suggests that the novel is somehow imitative, or even retrogressive, given that these modernist precursors, for all their freshness, are close to a hundred years old. It is far from that. Instead, it captures echoes of previous works, and plays with the idea of the place of remembered reading in the thoughts of sensitive people. For the characters share sensitivity, and an orientation away from the acquisitiveness that dominates their contemporary Australian culture, and towards more creative and broadly spiritual ways. At times this can mean that the characters blur a little, since each is so unusually responsive to the textures and meanings of the world he or she explores.
The characters are variously haunted by public and private traumas. Pei Xing travels through Circular Quay from Bankstown, where she lives, to the North Shore nursing home where she visits an elderly woman, Dong Hua, reads Dr Zhivago to her, and feeds her meals she has prepared. In doing so, Pei Xing confronts the atrocities and trauma of her experience as an ‘educated youth’ during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Catherine, whose characterisation, with its slightly clichéd Irishness, is sometimes less successful than those of the other three characters, recalls the life and death of her adventurous brother Brendan. Ellie’s griefs do not weigh on her as much, and her hope contrasts with James’s pessimism. It is James for whom a recent tragedy has proven insurmountable, or perhaps the ultimate trauma in a series of losses and injuries in his life. Jones’s portrait of his struggle to cope, and his sense of having failed in his attempt to reach out to Ellie, is exquisitely drawn.
Jones concludes the novel with a coda. At the end of the day, as a thunderstorm begins, she writes, ‘And they are sinking now, all of them, into the wet sleep of the city’. She touches on her characters’ last thoughts of the day, summarising their experience. Catherine is described as ‘closing into dreaming’, and Pei Xing, thinking of a Tai Chi practice of walking backwards, backwards, ‘slips into dreaming’, a repetition which exemplifies an element of excess or haste that occasionally touches the otherwise lyrical prose here. This coda, too, feels slightly askew. It seems too certain, and wanting too firm an attachment to the drifting, protean narratives it follows.
Before this, the novel’s penultimate scenes vividly recall Slessor’s poem, with the terrifying possibilities beneath the Harbour’s benign surface. The shapes and silences of Slessor’s poem rise up like strange sea creatures, brought to life by Jones’s ambitious and compelling writing.
CONTENTS: FEBRUARY 2011