Tag Archives: Salisbury

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.

Home Fires and an outing to Salisbury

SalisburyI met up with a friend in Salisbury last week, a city of which I’m very fond although it feels more like a town to me. It’s a lovely train journey from Bath but the countryside was swathed in murk and so a book was needed, one that wasn’t too demanding given that there’s no quiet carriage on that route. Elizabeth Day’s Home Fires looked a possibility. It explores the effects of war across the generations through a single family so hardly a piece of escapism but it’s more in Joanna Trollope than Siri Hustvedt territory, engaging but not taxing – just the thing for a rackety train and an appropriate choice for a trip that was taking me through Warminster along the edges of Salisbury Plain, military training heartland.

It opens in 1920 with Elsa, aged six, frightened by the strange, angry man who’s invaded herCover image happy childhood. Clearly suffering from shell-shock, Horace flinches at the slightest noise and beats his small daughter for the smallest infringement. Cut to Caroline in 2010, Elsa’s daughter-in-law drugged into a state where she can cope with her soldier son’s death, but unable to accept it. The stories of these two are interwoven with flashbacks to Caroline’s difficult relationship with the exacting, snobbish but deeply damaged Elsa, Andrew’s stoicism at his son’s death and Max’s determination to make a difference in the world no matter what it takes. When it becomes clear that ninety-eight-year-old Elsa can no longer cope on her own, Andrew moves her into the family home. Relations between the two women – one much diminished but still finding a way to best her daughter-in-law, the other faced with a lifetime of never measuring up while becoming obsessed with military casualties – become strained to breaking point. The relationship between Elsa and Caroline is painfully well drawn and Day’s portrayal of a couple trying to deal with the loss of their beloved son is both convincing and moving. It’s a perceptive novel, not one that’s likely to find itself on any literary prize lists, but absorbing and thought-provoking for all that.