On the great expanse of Sailsbury Plain, five rivers converge. And in the place where these rivers meet, beneath the soaring spires of Salisbury cathedral, five lives are about to do the same: Rita, a flower seller, whose rough edges hide a vulnerable soul and whose bad decisions may have led her to the edge of the abyss with no way to turn back; Sam, a schoolboy navigating his first love and his first loss; George, a widower, whose involvement in a serious accident prompts him to look back over his life; Alison, an army wife, struggling with the loneliness of the one who is always left behind; Liam, a security guard who has fled a failed relationship, seeking something, but what, he isn’t sure.
Five lives, connected by the coincidences and minutiae of everyday life, will meet, mingle and unravel, leaving each other forever changed. Sussex born writer Barney Norris is an award-winning playwright, his debut full-length play Visitors having been awarded Critics’ Circle and Off West End Award for ‘Most Promising Playwright’, and in this, his first novel, it shows. Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain is constructed in a manner similar to the traditional five act play: Rita, Sam, George and Alison’s separate sections essentially the novelistic equivalent of a character standing on a stage reading out a soliloquy, with Liam providing the prologue and epilogue. I can certainly see this being adapted for stage or screen and being adapted well.
But it isn’t just the story’s structure that speaks of Norris’s origins as a playwright, the characters in this novel also show it, and show why he is an award winning one. Male and Female, young and old, working class and middle class, each character has a voice that is both distinctive and authentic. Rita’s roots and background, for instance, are conveyed not only through what she recounts to us, but also through her dialect, which manages to avoid the cliché portrayal of a relatively uneducated character by just throwing a lot of contractions around – it’s subtle, and, like one of the titular rivers, her words have their own rhythm. And yet he is able to transition from her raw, slightly crude, voice to Sam’s youthful, hesitant romanticism easily, and so on. But what really makes Norris’s characters empathetic is the fact that, despite whatever mistakes or poor choices they make, they’re still able to see and, each in their own way, appreciate the little moments of beauty in everyday life.
He also showcases his ability to write in different formats, with Alison’s section taking the form of a diary, George’s containing insertions of an interview and Sam’s containing stories within a story.
Another element worth mentioning is the novel’s sense of place. Salisbury and its environs are rendered in such detail that it almost becomes another character, particularly the cathedral, which looms large in the lives of all the characters; a symbol of hope and mankind’s aspiration, and silent stone sentinel watching over the people below. Even if you’re not familiar with Salisbury, the setting is evoked so well you’ll be able to see the images it conjures with ease.
Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain is a relatively short novel, but in this, it reminds me of the poetry of Emily Dickinson: it may be short and deceptively simple looking but is actually densely packed with imagery and meaning. And, also like Emily Dickinson, deals with similar themes, such as loneliness, death, spirituality, the simple beauty of the world around us.
Barney Norris’s first novel is a beautiful and quietly powerful one, promising interesting work to come that I look forward to seeing.