Books

Book cover: an impressionist painting of a field and a gloomy sky above. In the centre, a sketch of a face with tree roots for a body and mushrooms growing out the top of their head.

Gregory Day
The Bell of the World

Among the literary honours awarded to Gregory Day is the 2021 prize from The Nature Conservancy Australia. A profound commitment to the future of the planet as well as a passion for all forms of music and language and a keen awareness of the truths of Indigenous culture form the fabric of his soaring, astonishing new novel.

The engrossing life story of Sarah runs through a powerful and lyrical chronicle that explores the structure and meaning of the universe. Sarah returns to Australia from an unhappy time at an English boarding school to live with her loving, eccentric uncle Ferny in the Otways in the early 20th century. This is the “place of the drama of her healing”. There is a constant rhythmic exchange between the tangible details of everyday life and the harmonies and grandeur of eternity’s unknown face. The narrative, delivered in a poetic, crystalline voice, rings with the tones of a time gone by.

Should the people of the tiny Bass Strait community interrupt the silence and register their existence by the installation of a bell? When Sarah and Ferny discuss the issue in a delightful, riddling conversation, they conclude that they shouldn’t, and oppose the proposition. Sarah has her own “inner bell forged from the materials all around” her. She can perceive the “sound of the ocean playing itself out” upon her “soul’s emulsion”. Her soul, she says, has a “bell-shaped skirt”. Attuned to the sounds of nature, she can hear “the bell of the world”.

The final third of the novel is boldly titled “The Natural History of Eternity”. The texture of Day’s language here is so seductive that the consciousness and imagination of the reader are invited into the pages. Sarah inserts twigs, bones, leaves and shells into her piano so that the instrument takes into itself strange echoes of the natural world. Imagine, if you will, taking Moby-Dick and Such is Life and binding them together – a page from one, a page from the other – into one vast book. A bookbinder in The Bell of the World accomplishes this feat.

This novel is a glorious creation, a singing gift. The reading mind is transported to a wider world: guided, illuminated and nourished. “All and everywhere is richly connected”, held together by “glistening threads”. As the author states in a note: “not all of the ingredients” can be “described in words, or even heard in the conscious mind”.

Transit Lounge, 416pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 4, 2023 as "The Bell of the World".

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