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’.