Set in Salisbury where five rivers do indeed meet we first learn a little about its history, touching on the magnificent Stonehenge that is built upon Salisbury plain. So although this wasn’t part of the story it does the job of setting the scene in the present when an event causes the lives of five people to collide.
‘There exists in all of us a song waiting to be sung which is as heart-stopping and vertiginous as the peak of the cathedral. That is the meaning of this quiet city, where the spire soars into the blue, where rivers and stories weave into one another, where lives intertwine.’
This is a more literary book than I’m usually found reading, full of metaphors, poetic phrases and a strong theme of story-telling but it is terrifically well-written and avoided the pretension that easily accompanies such a book.
So we are in the city of Salisbury where we meet our first character, Rita a flower seller with a turn of phrase that was certainly unexpected, readers who are averse to bad language may well wonder what on earth Barney Norris is playing at but once you get past the obvious Rita’s story has hidden depths, some of which only become apparent later on, it is definitely worth moving onto Sam. Sam is a sixteen year old boy who lives in a house where talking isn’t normal. This story really touched me and I felt it was an accurate portrayal of a young man on the cusp of adulthood. The other stories, involve an elderly man a recent widower, a woman whose husband is serving in Afghanistan who is one lonely woman without roots, and finally Liam, who has returned to his hometown after the end of a relationship.
Each of these five stories is a portrait of a person at a certain point in their life and each and every one has elements that had me feeling empathy and even understanding for them, and yet these aren’t headline stories, what made the tales so delightful was that they examined the everyday happenings which dominate individual lives. One or a combination of these stories may well have happened to you, they certainly will have happened to someone close to you and yet the way the tales unfold was far from ordinary. In essence it reminded me that we all have stories to tell, some are just bigger than others.
The triumph of this book was the intersecting of these dissimilar characters, their troubles are their own, the way they deal with those problems are individual and yet there are threads criss-crossing Salisbury that connect them all, some in the past, all in the present. In the hands of a less accomplished writer it would be easy for these connections to feel false, to rely too much on coincidence and yet Barney Norris avoids any clunkiness, there is absolute authenticity in the device as well as the characters.
I can’t finish this review without mentioning the writing style which for all the poetic turns of phrase and strong metaphors didn’t fall over the line into pretentiousness, the real reason why I tend to avoid ‘literary books’ and it was far from an expedition which favoured style over substance. I won’t deny that one of the five stories was less compelling to read than the other four but perhaps because I didn’t connect with this one through my own experiences, but other readers will have their own favourites I’m sure, but even this one had enough links to the others to keep me hooked. If only all literary books were this accessible and enjoyable!
I’d like to say a huge thank you to the publishers Doubleday who gave me a copy of this book for review purposes, this unbiased review is my thank you to them. Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain, the debut novel by playwright Barney Norris was published on 21 April 2016.