Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain by Barney Norris

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Reviewed by Harriet

One quiet evening in Salisbury, the peace is shattered by a serious car crash. At that moment, the lives of five people collide – a flower-seller, a schoolboy, an army wife, a security guard, a widower – all facing their own personal disasters.

This is Barney Norris’s debut novel, but he’s already had a lot of success in other genres – his play Visitors won the Critic’s Circle and Off West End Awards for most promising playwright, and he’s also written a non-fiction book, To Bodies Gone, a study of the plays of Peter Gill. He’s now playwright in residence at Keble College Oxford. Not bad for someone who was born in 1975.

Norris was brought up in Salisbury, where the novel is set. As the title may suggest (or not), its subject is the lives of five disparate people – different ages, situations, ways of life – which happen to overlap with each other. The book is divided into four main sections, a character for each, and the fifth person gets the prologue and epilogue. As the blurb quoted above tells us, the crucial moment in the novel is the car crash, in which one character is knocked off a moped driven by another character, and the crash is witnessed by the other three.

First we encounter Rita, an aging woman whose only successful venture in life has been the flower stall she runs in the centre of town. Rita’s life has been a disaster area, hurtling from a promiscuous teenage to a relationship with a man who, though the love of her life, is incapable of fidelity, to years of hazy and crime-ridden addiction. A mess, you may think, but Norris thinks himself into her troubled psyche and shows a woman with a good heart and fine intentions who just can’t seem to drag herself out of a lifetime of messing up.

Next up is Sam, a quiet, withdrawn teenage boy, who rarely talks to anyone and is a bit of a mystery even to his parents. Painfully shy, he falls in love for the first time with a girl who he thinks won’t look at him in a million years. All the pain and uncertainty associated with this is intensified by the fact that his beloved father has been diagnosed with a terminal illness and hasn’t got much time left.

The third life is that of elderly farmer George. Recently widowed after a long and happy, though childless, marriage, he’s rattling around in his old farmhouse, now much too big and empty seeming to feel like the right place to live any more. And finally there’s Alison, an army wife, living in rented accommodation and desperately lonely. Her only son is away at boarding school, she knows few people, and she spends her days trying to quell her depression and anxiety with too much alcohol and pills. Even when her boy comes home for the holidays she feels he is growing away from her and can’t think of anything to say to him.

All this sounds as if it might be depressing, and certainly there’s a lot of sadness here. But Norris’s ability to think himself into the thoughts and feelings of his protagonists, especially those people who are separated from himself by many decades, is really impressive. I haven’t said anything about Liam, the fifth character, who as I said doesn’t appear in the main chapters, but acts almost like a sort of Greek chorus, commenting on the action from a distance. He’s a loner, and not a native to the city, but he does, however, appear briefly in each of the narratives, and in fact there’s a good deal of the most subtle intertwining between all the protagonists, whose paths have crossed in one way or another during the course of their lives. I won’t say more about this, but it does shed light on the rather mysterious title – lives that meander on in their own tracks, but which intersect at moments during the process. And it is the car crash and its aftermath that illuminates this process most fully, awakening memories and feelings in what turns out to be a wholly positive way. And indeed, for most people, there is a happy ending of sorts.

This is a gentle, sensitive and thoughtful debut, well worth reading.

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Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books

Barney Norris, Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain (Doubleday, 2016). 978-0857523723, 288pp., hardback.

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