Five Rivers Met On A Wooded Plain by Barney Norris

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‘Only connect…’

Those two words are the point from which all flows in E.M. Forster’s masterly Howard’s End but they apply equally to Five Rivers Met On A Wooded Plain, the first novel by an annoyingly talented pup and playwright called Barney Norris. Set (rather refreshingly, way away from the usual boundaries of literary land) in Salisbury, it examines the lives of five people who find their stories intersecting at the scene of a serious traffic accident in the Wiltshire town. There is Rita the flower seller, lamenting the paths down which she has allowed life to lead her; 15-year old Sam, in love with the unattainable Sophie Lawrence; an elderly widower, recently bereaved; a lonely, depressed army wife whose husband is on active duty in Afghanistan; and Liam, the reluctant security guard. We hear from all of them their hopes, fears, dreams and recollections, including tragedies past and current. In its evocation of multiple inner lives, it has something of the rhythm of Jon McGregor’s If Nobody Speaks Of Remarkable Things about it. As with McGregor’s work, there is also a strikingly poetic sheen to Norris’ story: he evokes the way that the song of the land shapes the way that settlements develop and people behave from antiquity into the present day. In this regard, Old Sarum, the Iron Age hill fort which contained Salisbury’s first cathedral, in effect becomes a character in its own right, with nearby Stonehenge referenced too as characters criss-cross with these extraordinary landmarks and with each other. Dim, almost forgotten, memories come to the fore at key moments. The coincidences between the protagonists are (perhaps inevitably given the structure and subject matter) somewhat pat at times – one character seeks to explain that by recalling a creative writing teacher saying that novels are all about coincidences. That’s about as meta as this novel gets and it is only a minor gripe. Five Rivers Met On A Wooded Plain is a sincere, disarmingly straight and emotional, multi-stranded tale about what it is like to live, love and lose. A simple idea, perhaps, but it is ultimately about making connections: with the landscape, with our history – and, of course, with one another.

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