I was looking for something a little more straightforward after the literary fireworks of Nicola Barker’s The Cauliflower® which is why I turned to Barney Norris’ debut – that and its Salisbury setting. I live an hour’s train journey from Salisbury with its famous cathedral, mentioned often in Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain, and there’s something very enjoyable about reading a novel set in a place you know well but not well enough to become hung up on niggling inaccuracies. The novel’s premise is an attractive one too. It explores the lives of five people involved in a car accident in the centre of town over the months after the crash.
There are three witnesses to the crash: a sixteen-year-old boy in the grips of first love with all its attendant pain and joy; a desperately lonely middle-aged woman married to a soldier who confides her thoughts to her diary and a worker at McDonald’s, left rootless by a bad break-up and divorced parents. We also learn about George, the elderly man driving the car, and Rita, the victim whose rackety life has landed her in trouble with the law. Each of these characters already has huge challenges to deal with, each of them approaches those challenges in different ways. One way or another their paths intersect just as they’ve intersected before in the way they so often do in a small town.
Norris handles those little overlaps beautifully. As the characters tell their stories – each in slightly different ways – it becomes apparent that they have all been a presence in each others’ lives, sometimes merely as a bit-player, sometimes playing a significant role without realising it. Each of them is battling with loneliness, sadness and regret and each of them comes to the conclusion that life is about connecting with others, about living now not in some perfect future which may never happen. Norris is adept at catching the voices of his characters – Rita’s defiant anger, George’s grief and guilt, Sam’s painful diffidence are all vividly conveyed. I wasn’t at all sure about the book at first – there’s an introductory section which was a tad too lyrical for me, bordering on the whimsical – but I’m glad I persevered. Altogether an absorbing read which would make an excellent TV drama with its cinematic setting, beautifully described by Norris. It made me want to pop down to the station and get on the next train to Salisbury.