Book review: Five Rivers shows Barney Norris’ deep empathy
The award-winning playwright’s impressive debut novel presents five lives that unravel after a car crash
Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain
by Barney Norris
Literary fiction is full of characters who are writers. Writers, and people who act as stand-ins for writers (musicians, artists, academics); children who are destined to be writers (articulate outsiders); and the kind of middle-class, well-educated people writers tend to know. It is not what the world looks like, and it makes me tired.
That kind of insularity is not something debut novelist Barney Norris can be accused of. Norris is a young playwright whose first full-length play, Visitors, won him the Critics’ Circle and Off West End awards for most promising playwright, and nominations for several more. Set in Salisbury, Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain looks well beyond the world of the literary intelligentsia, describing with great humanity five ordinary lives, and coming close, as it does so, to being a “state of the nation” novel – albeit one with none of the bombast the term usually implies.
First we meet middle-aged Rita, who sells flowers from a stall and is a small-time drug dealer on the side. She is not stupid, but neither is she educated, and her life has been a series of wrong turns. All the characters’ sections are written in the first person, and Rita’s voice is urgent, profane to the point of ugliness, self-deceiving and deeply affecting. Her downward spiral is simultaneously preventable and inevitable, and anyone who has known an addict of any kind will wince in recognition. Next we meet Sam, a teenage boy struggling with anxiety, first love and, eventually, the death of his father; when he witnesses a car crash we begin to discern the scaffolding the novel will be built around. Drunk and distressed at Old Sarum hill fort following the accident, Sam meets Liam, a young security guard whose story is revealed at the end of the book.
Elderly landowner George Street was driving the car that crashed, and Norris gives us a moving picture of his long, happy but childless marriage, and reveals, too, his connection to both Rita and to Liam. Salisbury – Rita calls it “Smallsbury” – is, like any city, not just bricks and mortar but a complex web of historical and human interactions, and as the novel progresses Norris delicately teases this out in a way that is deeply satisfying.
Desperately lonely army wife Alison is trying to settle in the area, the sixth place her husband has been posted since their marriage. He is fighting abroad and her son is at boarding school; she struggles through the days and nights with the help of wine, her diary and sleeping pills. She pities herself, but not in the kind way that she should, instead hamstringing her own attempts to pull herself out of depression with misguided self-criticism and the dark lure of despair.
Her lifeline is the local theatre, which Norris, unsurprisingly, writes about perceptively. The turning point for her, though, turns out not to be art, but something simpler and more domestic. It is in Alison that the novel’s ambitious subject matter comes most clearly to the fore: nothing less than life itself, and how to live it; how we become the people we do; and what our choices mean for us further down the line.
Not all the characters are as well realised as Alison. Sam, in particular, is given a voice that often strays well beyond his teenage years; perhaps he is too close to Norris himself, so that he couldn’t quite prevent his own adult insights from creeping in.
There are different kinds of good writing. Technical skill – good prosody, pace, description and so on – counts for a lot, as does the ability to tell a story well. But there is another quality I look for, and it can’t be learned at writing classes. It shines out when characters are granted their complexity and handled with empathy and compassion, and it comes, I think, from being a decent human being. Judging by this tolerant and insightful debut, Norris has it in spades.