Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 6, 2023

The Bell of the World (2023), by Gregory Day

As I made my morning coffee today in the quiet of my kitchen, a bird was singing outside.  Mindful of the motif of listening in Gregory Day’s new novel The Bell of the World, I paused, and listened, really listened, so that I could identify the bird.

The Bell of the World is a challenging book, not because it’s hard to read and make sense of, but because it challenges our ideas about what art is, what music is, and even what literature is.

Titled ‘Big Cutting Hill’ and set in the early years of the 20th century, Part One introduces Sarah Hutchinson, a troubled young woman under the care of an Indigenous woman called Maisie.  Sarah’s immediate family is absent from the novel, so we know only that her mother drank to excess and that after her parents’ acrimonious divorce Sarah was packed off to boarding school in Devon.  There, bells punctuate her day and she feels claustrophobic after the wide open spaces of Australia.  From there she is offloaded to Uncle Ferny’s bohemian circle in Rome.

In Rome, in artistic circles (that include ‘poetivores’!) Sarah is exposed to (and excited by) modernism.  But sent home to Uncle Ferny’s farm Ngangahook she is confused, lethargic and depressed, and it is Maisie’s wisdom that begins to heal her.  This healing coincides with the return of Uncle Ferny (who is hairy from reading i.e. unshaven!)

In Part Two, (in Sarah’s voice) Ngangahook illustrates the clash between European settler values and the Hutchinsons’ desire to belong in their landscape.  The local wannabe dignitary Selwyn Atchison wants a civic bell to dignify the town (and himself), expressing…

…his own Presbyterian need for a bell to civilise, indeed to drown out the pollinating salt airs of this small inlet into, and out of, the sea.  (p.69)

Sarah and Uncle Ferny reject the entire concept.  Such a bell would impose itself on the bush which has its own ancient soundscape of birds and the rustlings of native fauna and the whistling of the wind in the trees.

No schoolbell, no churchbell, no bell for service nor for storm.  Just the silence that is so filled with sound.  The reach of the pealing bell of the moonlured surf, beseeching no one at the rivermouth.  That, I came to believe, through the pressure of engagement, is the only bell of auditory range that ever an inlet wanted to be heard.

But still: a niceness in the offing, something coming our way other than weather, that’s what caused the bitter unsuccessful petition to so deepen and endure. (p.66)

(The point is that nations do irreversible things without any consideration for how it might impact globally… climate change, nuclear waste, starting endless wars, noise pollution from planes, blighting the night sky with satellites, invading privacy with drones. None of us can escape from it, and on and on and on it goes with global forums powerless to put a stop to it.)

Uncle Ferny’s refusal to contribute to the fund to pay for this intrusive bell arouses not only indignation but ostracism in the town.  The townsfolk were already bemused by Sarah’s concerts on her ‘altered piano’. In her narrative she includes a newspaper clipping:

In a novel procedure Miss Hutchinson had adjusted the workings and thus the sound of the homestead’s grand piano with the following items from the field: a bullock bone, a piece of ironbark, a banksia cob, a scrap of 8 gauge wire, a kangaroo rib, a train ticket, a fray of crinoline, a bandage, a letter, fern fronds, a bridle hasp and fox-fur. (p.61)

What is music?  Sarah’s composition is titled ‘My Autumn’ and it distinguishes the Australian autumn from the European one with its very sound.  We learn later in Part Three that Sarah — alone on an isolated property — is creating experimental music that could take its place amongst the most radical of experimentalists in the 20th century.

Meanwhile, Uncle Ferny’s favourite book, Such Is Life by Joseph Furphy, is in need of repair.  He has read it so constantly — throughout all his travels and giving readings of it to his pals in Rome so they can hear what Australia sounds like — that it is literally falling apart, so he and Sarah make a rare journey to Geelong to the Bookbinder of Moolap.

(BTW Bill at The Australian Legend has discussed the merits of Such is Life in 12 posts.  See here. Update, later the same day: Plus, Brona at This Reading Life has posts from her Readalong here, thanks to Bill (see Comments below) for the tip.)

The Bookbinder of Moolap is a bit of an eccentric, and a frustrated author.  When Uncle Ferny returns to collect his book he finds that it has been radically altered. It’s twice the size because interleaved with its pages are the pages of Moby Dick, a book largely unknown at that time.  Expertly re-filleted and spliced, it’s not the book he loved any more.  Is it a book, as we recognise books to be?  It ruins both of them, after all, but it creates something new and interesting. It’s now a minotaur of a book. But are these two separate great works of literature still a great work of literature when ocean prose converges with the astringent Australian music of Uncle Ferny’s landbook of bullockies and brown rivers? As we saw with Sarah’s altered piano, Uncle Ferny is already accustomed to, indeed disposed towards, the alteration of sacred cultural objects for the purpose of, and in the spirit of, aesthetic creation. Does he accept the altered book?  Hmmm, would I?

You can see why it has taken days and days to read The Bell of the World.  It’s because it triggered all kinds of meandering thoughts.  It is a novel rich in meaning and full of surprises.

Part III, ‘The Natural History of Eternity’ introduces Sarah’s fruitful correspondence, through the pages of the American Natural History magazine with ‘The Correspondent from Stony Point’.  It’s the 1950s by now, and while life goes on at Ngangahook, and Don Atchison views Sarah in a way entirely different to his haughty father, and Joe Busch is intrigued by her… she writes to this American about … mushrooms (of which there are plenty on her property.) He turns out to be an American composer of experimental music, and the stunning climax of this novel is his performance at the Melbourne Town Hall.

‘John’ is a fictionalised John Cage, the pioneer of indeterminacy in music, who supported his commercially unsuccessful music by selling mushrooms to restaurants. He also wrote a book about them. His concert features avant-garde ‘sound artists’ such as Henry Cowell.  The text blurs (as perhaps the Minotaur of the book blurs?) with Joe playing Jelly Roll Morton jazz pieces on Sarh’s grand piano and wondering if he can ever reach the dizzy heights playing footy, and Sarah enthralled by the performance amid an audience that doesn’t know what to make of it.  Melbourne was being taught to listen.

You can hear Gregory Day discuss the book here but be quick; 3CR does not make its broadcasts available for very long.

BTW In a world of banal bookcovers, take a close look at the cover of The Bell of the World.  It represents the theme of connectedness, centred by a pensive Sarah gazing confidently at her world.  There’s a ghostly bell that never was yet it caused so much angst; and also from Part II there are Christmas bells (the seasonal bells) at Ngangahook.  Above and below, there is the network of mushroom spores that feature in Part III. There’s a Willy Wagtail too: I don’t remember its place in the novel, but I bet it’s there in the text somewhere!

Update, later the same day, re the Willy Wagtails, thanks to Carmel Bird’s helpful reply in Comments, and an email from Barry Scott, the publisher, I now know the significance of the willy wagtails.  Firstly, at the beginning of Part II when Sarah arrives at her uncle’s property:

…as I stepped down off the cart upon our arrival through the gate at Ngangahook, that this home in the glen was not a merely productive milieu, that it also thrived as a glen for a glen’s own sake, without superfluous moral ledgers or hectoring audits. I hoped very much that we would live in companionship with that, as the wagtail lives within its three-rung song. (p.56)


So she asked that separate part of herself, the part that saw the future and heard god’s timbre in the eternity of natural sound – she asked for the free restoration of her senses, to hear the wagtail’s three-rung song, the liquid song of the magpie in the background, and the thick bed of ocean sound beyond that. For this was a journey of emotion and loss,

And then, later in the book on p 272, there are Willy Wagtails that have made themselves at home in Sarah’s kitchen.  She is living in companionship with them:

And over in the kitchen, where Sarah had now gone to put the kettle on the stove, two willie wagtails flew about happily, perching here and there on the bench and cupboard-tops, wagging their tails, and occasionally sounding their three-part song. Joe had seen swallows caught up in the inside of houses before, and he’d seen cockatoos in cages of course, but never willie wagtails with the run of a kitchen…

Here’s a little video where you can hear its song:

Update 10/3/23: Jack Callil has written a perceptive review of this novel at The Guardian. 

Author: Gregory Day
Title: The Bell of the World
Cover art by Sian Marlow and Peter Lo
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2023
ISBN: 9780648414087, hbk., 408 pages
Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge


  1. One the richest most satisfying and nourishing novels you will ever have the privilege of reading. And thank you so much Lisa for drawing attention to the beauty and significance of the glorious cover.


    • Oh yes indeed, and I forgot to mention your review in The Oz The Saturday Paper/
      It was a fine and perceptive review, but it made me cross. I was almost finished the novel by then and I knew it was a book that deserved much more column space than it had. Someone needs to have a bit of a chat with that new editor…


      • Actually the review was in The Saturday Paper where most reviews are very brief. Writers tend to be grateful these days for any length of review.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Oops, so it was!
          Sorry! (I’d better edit my comment, eh?)
          And yes, any review is welcome, I believe.


          • Not to worry.


            • Thanks, I should be less hasty, I know.
              BTW Can you remember the Willy Wagtail? It’s bugging me that I can’t remember where it fits in the story. (I wasn’t really aware of how clever the cover is until I listened to that interview at 3CR and of course that was after I’d finished reading the book.)


              • Two willy wagtails page 272. That is the only reference I have made to them in my notes.


                • Ah yes, I’ve found it there, thank you.
                  They are the Willy Wagtails that have made themselves at home in Sarah’s kitchen:
                  “And over in the kitchen, where Sarah had now gone to put the kettle on the stove, two willie wagtails flew about happily, perching here and there on the bench and cupboard-tops, wagging their tails, and occasionally sounding their three-part song. Joe had seen swallows caught up in the inside of houses before, and he’d seen cockatoos in cages of course, but never willie wagtails with the run of a kitchen”…
                  Here’s a little video where you can hear its song:

                  Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh goodie, I have a copy of this and shall look forward to reading it!


  3. Thank you for the mention and the link and I should add that my Such is Life followed Brona’s year-long Moby Dick (which followed your Finnigan’s Wake).

    Do Presbyterians have bells? I wouldn’t have thought so, but of course in fiction anything is possible. I am glad we have writers who think as widely as the great Joseph Furphy. I’ll add this to the list of books I must buy, and hopefully, after it has simmered for a while, I will read it.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. WOW, this sounds fantastically weird! The mix of styles across sections is particularly intriguing. (And the integration of experimental music piques my interest even more!)


    • The author is a composer too…


  5. I knew I should have accepted this novel for review. Timing!


    • You can only do what you can do.
      I could wallpaper my library with review requests that I haven’t been able to commit to.
      We just do our best.
      And when your habitat issues are all sorted, you’ll be able to relax and enjoy your reading again.


      • Yes I know … thanks Lisa … but some that pass by are more heartbreaking than others, aren’t they?


        • I guess so. But the book will still be there when you are ready for it.


  6. Firstly thank you for the Moby-Dick link, I still think about my time with it and the #slowread that added to the experience. I suspect I will need a #slowread to really appreciate this story too. It sounds quite extraordinary.

    One of my colleagues felt there was some #metoo concerns with the young girl in Rome. But for now, I’m off to hunt down Carmel’s review of the book.


    • It is a slow read. And I admit that for a while, though I was following the story, I didn’t understand what Day was on about. And then suddenly it all clicked together for me and I was on board with the bigger theme. Which isn’t the only one. There’s a lot about the environment and the connectedness of humans to a greater network. But I can’t write about everything in a review, so I chose what interested me most.
      That element of the story made me suspicious at first too. Let’s face it, there’s so much #MeToo in fiction these days that we are expecting it in every novel as if all men are predators. But for Sarah IMO it was not only consensual in a Bohemian household, it was emblematic of the way she thinks about relationships. Modernism between the sheets, if you like. A complete break with old Victorian values. Just as she is well ahead of everybody doing experimental things with art and music and is open to experimental things with books, she holds agency over her own body and is experimenting with doing things differently.


  7. Thank you, Lisa, for the video of the willy wagtail. I loved the gestures of the bird, and also his eye makeup.


    • They are so gorgeous! We do get them very, very occasionally in the backyard but mostly we see them in a nearby park where they tease Amber, flying down low and swooping over her so that she goes berserk with frustration.
      (Not that she’d know what to do if she did get close. Any hunting instincts that Amber has are confined to the retrieval of balls.)


  8. I love that last quote from the book about the willy wagtails. Such an interesting story.


    • Day is renowned as a nature writer. He’s also just published a collection of essays called Words are Eagles.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. On my list!


    • Yesssss!
      I’m dying to see what my reading buddies think of this:)

      Liked by 1 person

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