Tag Archives: Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain

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.

Books to Look Out For in April 2016: Part 2

Cover imageThis second batch of April titles kicks off with a book that’s been getting a fair bit of attention in my neck of the Twitter woods. Not always a good sign but it’s been from the kind of people who usually know what they’re talking about. Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You is set in Bulgaria where an American teacher looking for sex encounters a hustler in one of Sofia’s public toilets. What begins as a transaction turns into an obsession in what sounds like a powerful debut. ‘Lyrical and intense, it tells the story of a man caught between longing and resentment, unable to separate desire from danger, and faced with the impossibility of understanding those he most longs to know’ say the publishers.

Also getting a bit of Twitter attention a little while back, David Szalay’s All That Man Is follows nine men, all of whom are away from home, each at different stages in their lives. Set in a variety of locations, from the suburbs of Prague to a Cypriot hotel, it’s ‘a portrait of contemporary manhood, contemporary Europe and contemporary life from a British writer of supreme gifts – the master of a new kind of realism’ say the publishers. The structure is a very appealing one although the predominantly male set of characters may become a bit wearing. Cover image

‘Postmodern’, a word that crops up in the blurb for the next novel, tends to run up a warning flag for me  but the synopsis for Álvaro Enrigue’s Sudden Death is hard to resist. It begins with a brutal tennis match in which Caravaggio takes on the Spanish poet Quevedo before an audience which includes Galileo and Mary Magdelene. According to the publishers ‘there are assassinations and executions, hallucinogenic mushrooms, bawdy criminals, carnal liaisons and papal dramas, artistic and religious revolutions, love and war. A blazingly original voice and a postmodern visionary, Álvaro Enrigue tells the grand adventure of the dawn of the modern era, breaking down traditions and upending expectations, in this bold, powerful punch of a novel.’ There’s every chance, of course, that it’s the kind of book that’s just too tricksy for its own good.

Anais, the main protagonist of Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon, was one of those characters who stayed with me for quite some time: bright, sassy and fierce – she was extraordinarily vividly drawn. I’m hoping for something similar with The Sunlight Pilgrims which seems to be set in the near future on a Scottish caravan park. It tells the story of a small community who are beginning to think that the freak weather spells the end of the world. Strange things are happening, the economy has collapsed and public services are in the hands of volunteers. I’m not a fan of dystopian fiction but Fagan’s writing is so striking that I’ll be making an exception for this one.

Cover imageMy final choice for April new novels is Barney Norris’s Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain. I’ve included it partly because it’s set in Salisbury, not a million miles from where I live, and partly because it sounds like a piece of good old-fashioned storytelling. A car crash results in the intersection of five lives each disastrously effected by the accident. ‘As one of those lives hangs in the balance, the stories of all five unwind, drawn together by connection and coincidence into a web of love, grief, disenchantment and hope that perfectly represents the joys and tragedies of small town life’ apparently. It could, of course, be hopelessly sentimental but I think I’ll give it a try if only for its setting.

That’s it for April’s new books. Just click on whichever title catches your attention if you’d like a little more detail. If you missed part one and would like to catch up with it, here it is.