Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain is the debut novel from playwright Barney Norris and it is a debut I was very excited to read. Within its pages are the stories of five different people, five different lives that one day collide…
‘That is the secret meaning of this quiet city, where the spire soars into the blue, where rivers and stories weave into one another, where lives intertwine.’
The story is based in Salisbury and it opens with an introduction to the setting with Salisbury Cathedral being a significant feature, almost a character in itself – a focal point of the town and a symbol of its faith and community. From this point the narrative alternates between five different characters, all of whom have a very different voice but have very similar things to say and stories to tell. They include a flower seller, a schoolboy, an army wife, a widower and a security guard. From the offset they appear to all lead very different lives but it soon transpires they may not be as far apart as they seem. A car accident shatters a peaceful evening and is the point in which the characters lives are thrown together.
‘What I think of as everything there is in the world, is no more than a reflection on the surface of the river. And the river will still be flowing when there are other faces reflected in it, and it will tell them nothing of what passed there before.’
This novel can be considered as five short stories which are intertwined to create one bigger story. The first point of view we see is that of Rita, a flower seller. A familiar face on the market she is a woman who has a lot of stories to tell, tales of a troubled past and difficult relationships. Her voice was the most vivid of the characters and it was quite jarring to go from the delicately written opening into her profanity filled narrative. We then hear the story of Sam, a schoolboy who is struggling to deal with a family illness at the same time as his feelings towards a girl start to develop. My favourite of the characters was that of George, a widower who finds himself at the centre of the incident. As he is questioned we get a glimpse into his life and how he is trying to come to terms with the loss of his wife. I found this chapter to be the most heart wrenching of them all. There is then the story of the army wife which is told in the form of diary entries, allowing the reader to see the deepest and darkest of her thoughts. Finally, there is the security guard who observes the goings on around him, and bears witness to the accident that connects his life with that of four others.
‘Stories weave into one and another. Lives intertwine. And the result of tracing these patterns through the air is that you begin to know the air they are moving through a little better.’
I found this novel to be a moving read that explores the range of emotions in the human heart. It is about love and loss, life and death. All of the characters are similar in that they are, or have, experienced difficult circumstances – the loss of loved ones, fraught relationships, trouble with the law. The other key theme here is loneliness. From a lost loved one to a husband away from home, a mother estranged from her son, and a boy feeling isolated in a world in which he is still to find his feet. There were many emotional moments along the way but it is not a story without hope. Whilst separately these people live an isolated existence, events in the novel show that there is companionship out there, and people are closer to hand than you may think, fighting the same battles.
‘The imaginary world. It will always be a beautifully dangerous place to visit.’
I really enjoyed reading Five Rivers on a Wooded Plain. Barney Norris has perfectly captured the muddle of emotions we face, and the challenges that life can bring. I was moved by the characters stories, gripped by them and willing them on to find their way in the world. It is a powerful, thought provoking debut, and I am certainly excited to see what is next from Barney Norris.
Five Rivers Met On A Wooded Plain is to be published on 21st April 2016 by Doubleday Books. Many thanks to Sophie Christopher for providing a proof copy for review.