Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain by Barney Norris
Publisher: Doubleday (April 2016)
Source: Copy received for review from the publisher via bookbridgr.com
“One quiet evening in Salisbury, the peace is shattered by a serious car crash. At that moment, the lives of five people collide – a flower-seller, a schoolboy, an army wife, a security guard, a widower – all facing their own personal disasters. As one of those lives hangs in the balance, Norris draws the extraordinary voices of these seemingly ordinary people together into a web of love, grief, disenchantment and hope that is startlingly perceptive about the human heart.”
I requested a copy of this book for review from the publisher via bookbridgr.com because I was intrigued by the premise. The book is set in the English city of Salisbury, where (a fact I did not know) five rivers do indeed meet on a wooded plain. The plot is cleverly constructed to follow the lives of five very different characters whose lives, like the rivers, converge in one spot on one fateful night.
As it turned out, this book was not quite what I was expecting. It felt to me like five (fairly long) short stories, with a shared link. Although the characters were linked by this event, and some of them through other events in their lives, they felt kind of unconnected to me. The writing is beautiful and makes your heart stop at some points – Norris has an uncanny ability to make the mundane extraordinary, to somehow reach into the crux of what makes us human and lay it bare for all to see. I marked several passages that I really identified with – something I rarely do. I will share a passage here, one of my favourite parts of the book where a character is thinking about what he would say to his younger self – this goes on for a couple of pages, but I’ll just share one paragraph here:
I would tell him his life doesn’t start when he leaves school, he’s already in it. It has been passing since the day he was born, and everything he puts off, chooses not to do or say be causing he is hoarding experience for his real, adult life isn’t a thing safeguarded but a treasure risked. The world is full of things put off for the wrong reasons, which can suddenly become impossible without any warning. They hang in the air like ghosts, their mouths and eyes sewn up for ever. They will never be able to speak, but if it was you who put them there, you will always be forced to see them.
And while this is one of my favourite passages in the book, it is also one which throws up a bit of a problem for me. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that this is a 16 year old, talking to his 15 year old self. I happen to live with two very intelligent teenagers, and I cannot imagine either of them (or, indeed, any of their friends!) having this articulate a conversation with themselves! A little implausible, but beautiful nonetheless, and a reminder to us all to live every moment!
The lives of most of the characters are touching and moving without being sentimental, but unfortunately there was one character who I did not like and who felt somewhat superfluous to things, and this just took the whole thing down a notch for me. I would definitely recommend this if you’re in the mood for a melancholic muse about normal people going about their lives, falling in love and living through tragic events.