Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain by Barney Norris: Only connect

Cover imageI 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.

10 thoughts on “Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain by Barney Norris: Only connect”

  1. I love stories of intersecting lives, or characters that have all been part of a particular event and then go off to deal with it in their own ways. This sounds like a bit of both.

    1. Susan Osborne

      I love that kind of structure. I’m particularly keen on the group of friends meeting at college then followed through several decades premise. Often very satisfying! What I liked about this one was the subtle way in which Norris reintroduced characters so that there was a pleasant feeling of recognition as it be came clear who it was. Very nicely handled.

  2. I too like the premise of strangers being chucked together in an incident/event and watching how their relationships develop … or dont! Made me laugh about liking familiar settings but not too familiar the inaccuracies jar… everytime we watch Vera in this house there’s always a lot of muttering about the geographical faux pas… especially that to get anywhere from her Newcastle City Centre office she always seems to go across the causeway to Holy Island 😉

    1. Susan Osborne

      Distracting isn’t it. I remember watching Broadchurch where Hill Road in Clevedon stood in for the High Street but the coastal footage was shot in West Bay which is in an entirely different county! Artistic license rather than inaccuracy, I suppose, but still disconcerting.

  3. This sounds like a lovely read; I too enjoy books about interconnected lives. Have you ever read if nobody speaks of remarkable things by Jon McGregor? That’s another interconnected book, beautifully written. Glad it was worth the (slight) effort of getting past the uncertain beginning.

    1. Susan Osborne

      Funnily enough, I’ll be posting something on McGregor next week. This one’s good although I wouldn’t rate it alongside Remarkable Things which really is something special. Such beautifully controlled writing!

      1. If nobody speaks of remarkable things is pretty much guaranteed to make me cry. Few books do, but there’s a section in the middle with the man with the burned hands and his daughter, doing her hair, and it is too wonderful and too lovely and so sad. Gets me every time. McGregor is a wonderful writer.
        Your mention of ‘only connect’ in the title reminds me I still haven’t read Howard’s End. Must, must get around to that!

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