Five Bells, by Gail Jones, Harvill Secker, RRP£16.99, 224 pages
Every other novel published today claims to be about “memory and loss”: the phrase has become the great blurb-writer’s cliché. Gail Jones’s Five Bells is the latest addition to the list, an intense, self-consciously poetic tale of four individuals who visit Sydney’s Circular Quay – home to the opera house – on a single summer’s day.
As Irish journalist Catherine tries to come to terms with the death of her brother in an accident, middle-aged Pei Xing recalls her family’s suffering during China’s Cultural Revolution. Filled with nostalgic sexual yearning, Ellie prepares to meet James, her teenage lover, for the first time in 20 years. He, however, is tortured by the death of a child on a school trip.
Jones’s X-ray focus on her characters’ inner lives yields some powerful moments. But the nods to James Joyce and Virginia Woolf feel laboured, while a tendency to strain for significance in the tiniest details inevitably produces diminishing returns.