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Posted on 14 Mar 2023 in Fiction |

GREGORY DAY The Bell of the World. Reviewed by Paul Anderson

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Gregory Day’s new novel explores the sublime through the life of a young woman in his beloved Otways.

In the essay ‘Otway Taenarum’ in his previous book, Words are Eagles (2022), Day recounts how, at a formative age, he looked for ‘imaginative texts intentionally set in my hyper-local geography’ – the Eastern Otways region of southwest Victoria – and found ‘apart from one or two exceptions, silence … absence’. In his sixth novel, The Bell of the World, he seems to have followed Toni Morrison’s famous injunction to write the book you want to read. It is his most ambitious and fecund novel yet, a wondrous, sky’s-the-limit, totemic work of environmentalism, set mostly circa 1910. As with Words Are Eagles, this book is anchored in the details of nature and the specificity of place, while also being cosmic in philosophic scope. Our agency on this pale blue dot, to use Carl Sagan’s phrase, and the interdependence of species, are central concerns (understanding animals, for example).

The world is speaking to us – nay, appealing – and is never silent, according to Sarah Hutchinson, the novel’s narrator-protagonist:

And so I listened. I listened again to the night, the bright sound of wind in the trees, the oom oom oom of the frogmouth. And to everything in between. I listened, to the bell of the world.

The titular bell is both literal and figurative. There is the physical bell that a Bell Committee of burghers wish to put in place, a civilising bell and symbol of invasion. And there is a mycological bell – the resilient mushroom species is the real bell of the story. The starring role goes to the Geastrum triplex, or earthstar mushroom, which makes a transpacific connection click in the final section. Indeed all manner of fragile and fantastic connections are made in the novel, like the one between bullock and whale, for instance.

The Bell of the World is a slice of Sarah’s sheltered life and attuned sensibility. It’s memoir-like, particularly the first-person ‘Ngangahook’ section (a first for Day in the novel form), which is akin to an epic prose poem to the district. For the first two-thirds it’s an Edwardian-era, turn of the century novel, ‘only nine years into the new Australian Federation‘, when local transportation was by horse and cart. The Ngangahook Run is the centrepiece, a homestead and farm owned by Sarah’s uncle, Uncle Ferny, where she also lives. Day has imagined another fictional western district of Victoria for the setting, this time somewhere between Winchelsea and the Bass Strait. This coastal milieu will feel pleasingly familiar to readers of his early novels and once again Day’s narrator has its ear, both in terms of dialect (plenty of yairs and rightos) and the psychoacoustics of this place. The Run is situated in a glen, ‘down below [Big Cutting Hill], where all this bush meets the sea‘; ‘a league or more‘ from ocean cliffs, within walking distance of the lighthouse and satellite town.

Sarah is a young woman in a malaise at the start of the novel; she has come of age but is in a low mental state. Her parents separated acrimoniously during her childhood in Melbourne and she was then shipped off to Miss Hunt’s Boarding School for Girls in Ilfracombe, in Devon, England. The first section of fifty pages outlines this history. Now back in Australia, feeling these shocks and dislocated, Sarah is farmed out first to Maisie, an Aunty like caretaker, and then to Ngangahook, to live under the tutelage of her uncle, Ferny. Both Maisie and Ferny help Sarah come back to her true self, as do all the sensory connections she makes with the world around her, particularly sound. Sarah, a sensuous and gentle woman, is inspirited at Ngangahook: we see her renaissance as a musician, ‘lady poet’ and naturalist (animalist, even), on the other side of healing and grieving. She says:

In the hearts of those raucous cockatoos there is a loving song, a family song, and they would be shocked I’m sure to hear what is to them the sweetest cries sound so violently in our human ears.

Sarah is more sister than niece to her young uncle (both are only children), and he promotes her in the community as an artistic protégé. There is usually a dash of the avant-garde and surreal with Day, and here we get Ferny’s Sunday salons, where Sarah has top billing, and a pyramid of dead (taxidermied) cockatoos lie on the grand piano.

Two unusual juxtapositions set up a later concordance. First, Sarah doctors her piano at Ngangahook:

By placing elements of the bush on and between the strings – gumnuts, bark, sturdy leaves, riverflints, pieces of kangaroo and parrot bone, even blue shards from the bowerbird (I’m ashamed to say), as well as the odd teaspoon and clothes peg …

And second, Ferny is obsessed with Joseph Furphy’s novel Such Is Life, and his copy has become the worse for wear. It went with him to Rome when he was on his grand tour of Europe, and after a shaggy dog story featuring ‘Jones the Bookbinder of Moolap’, Ferny’s book is repaired and returned to him – but it is now interleaved with pages from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. His big book has just got bigger! Jones justifies his creation:

Thus I was propelled then by my own grand idea, of a single book uniting the ocean with the land, and both the skies above them. A portmanteau, a book of the world no less, or should I say, of the whole earth.’

There’s a temporal leap in the last section, ‘The Natural History of Eternity’, to circa 1960. Sarah is now an older woman, still reclusive and living at Ngangahook. Through the letters pages of Natural History magazine, she strikes up a correspondence with John of Stony Point (Rockland County, USA): a fellow hobbyist and, vitally, a mushroom lover. Enter John Cage, the American composer, famous for avant-garde experimentation such as his silent piano piece, ‘4’ 33’, and – to close one of the feedback loops in the novel – his ‘prepared piano’. This whole section is a stunning final movement and exciting to read. Day somehow manages to be engaging about silence. He writes this part in a close third person that could be an out-of-body Sarah looking at herself, her soul self. She listens intently: she is in the moment, in unity with what German author Eckhart Tolle refers to as the eternal present (The Power of Now, 2000). And Day lands a narrative triple salchow to boot as three separate plot lines simultaneously reach the novel’s climax.

Clearly there’s a lot going on here and the book takes its time, especially the poetic, more fragmentary middle section, ‘Ngangahook’. Its two hundred pages are half the novel. More than once, tea is made and you, dear reader, watch the billy boil. It is a deliberately slow novel, occasionally forced, I have to say, but how else to write about the sublime? The novel can take the reader down any number of rabbit holes. It could be an extended metaphor for the Gaia hypothesis. The epigraph from Bruno Latour, the French philosopher, took me to his volume Facing Gaia (2017), of which Jeremy Harding wrote in the London Review of Books: ‘The days of the garrulous sciences returning from the field, or the lab, to announce their findings about objects unable to speak for themselves were over.’

The Bell of the World has a different tone to Day’s previous novels, more Romantic, old-fashioned, even. It could also be read as a work of decolonisation in a minor key. We are reading a story the author-narrator acknowledges is set on Wadawurrung country. Ngangahook is the First Nations word for ironbark, and it is no accident that it is also the name of the Hutchison property. Maisie may be a secondary character but above all else she is evidently a First Nation sovereign. Whereas Sarah and Ferny are unmistakably white, privileged, descendants of settler-colonials. They are cultured and progressive, yes, however Day must have known this characterisation was a risk. He averts Sarah coming across as an English Rose. ‘How about Grazier, Inheritor, Cocky, or LUCKY BITCH?‘ she asks, self-reflexively. You can definitely hear her voice and intonation as you read. She is certainly not sexless either and her sensual scenes are rendered well. There may be no way out for Ferny, however, an unlikely gentleman farmer. His character hews closely to the trope of the rich gay uncle by way of private, inherited wealth and, when he was in Rome, a lover referred to as ‘Martin of Mendips’.

The Bell of the World is a wonderful novel by all meanings of that adjective. It’s a Big book full of wonder and learning but done with a lightness of touch and tone. It is a nudge to the reader to meditate on the ‘oneness’ of the world, ‘to let the world itself ring out’. It’s a singular mode of eco-fiction and tricky to classify but might sit on a bookshelf alongside Richard Powers’ Bewilderment (2021). It’s baggy, yes, but do read on to the exciting end. I was with Sarah Hutchison at the Melbourne Town Hall as she listened to John Cage perform, but in a way it was Maisie who rightfully held the second ticket for the spare seat next to her.

Gregory Day The Bell of the World Transit Lounge Publishing 2023 HB 416pp $32.99

Paul Anderson is a freelance editor. He is the co-editor of The Power of a Football, a collection of Reclink footy stories, published in 2022 by WestWords Limited.

You can buy The Bell of the World from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW or you can buy it from Booktopia.

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