There were times when reading Barney Norris‘s Five rivers met on a wooded plain (Doubleday/Transworld, 2016) when it felt like I’d wandered into the pages of one of those self-help personal growth tomes. This is a young man’s novel. Ambitious, over-written and striving too hard – death and the meaning of life and all that.
The paperback blurb writer does him no favours: “One quiet evening in Salisbury, the peace is shattered by a serious car crash. At that moment five lives collide…” Except they don’t, really.
The actual crash (spoiler alert) is delivered as a slow reveal, so the reader is inevitably wondering when this flamin’ crash is actually going to happen. We are at least a third of the way into the book – sorry, my copy’s gone back to the library so I can’t be exact – before the crash happens, and even further before we know who’s taken to hospital. Of the five people the book features, only two are actually involved in the crash, two are observers who don’t linger at the scene, and the fifth has observed the observers.
So we actually have five people (Hey, five rivers!). All are undergoing some sort of crisis in their lives, and we get the full context of that. They range from teenage schoolboy up, roughly representing decades, all speaking in the first person. Their lives, or their families’ lives, have more or less obliquely touched one another; they have been in the same place at the same time once or twice. Not collided. Which is, chasing the epigraph, a quote from George Eliot’s Middlemarch that introduces the text, the self-proclaiming and highly creditable point of the book:
That is the secret meaning of this quiet city, where the spire soars into the blue, where rivers and stories weave into one another, where lives intertwine.
That is the closing sentence of the opening chapter, which unfortunately is immediately proceeded by “… 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.” The quiet city is Salisbury, the chapter’s title is The burning arrow of the spire. Rather good, that. But the chapter is a load of psycho-geographical babble, linking the settlements in “the green south of Wiltshire” over time from Woodhenge through Stonehenge (“We know they heard the song“) to Old Sarum and the building of the Cathedral to the modern-day city. Which might just have worked in verse form. Even the book’s greatest defenders at Book Group – nay, champions even! – were not averse to my use of the word pretentious here.
The book has its moments, the way their stories entwine is nicely done, and Barney Norris obviously cares. While I wasn’t wholly convinced by any of the five, I ended up wanting to know what happened to each of them to the extent of bewailing please, author, get on with it as I read, especially in the case of the lonely soldier’s wife, stuck out in a suburb. As it happens, Norris, whose primary artistic focus has been theatre, uses her to make a convincing case for local theatre as both an effective personal and ongoing community therapy.
Here’s the problem. Barney can write, but at the moment he can’t help but Write with a capital W; given his theatrical background I think it’s fair to say he slips into being a Writ-or too easily. At our Book Group meeting, for instance, one woman, whose judgment I respect highly, surprised me by quoting this passage as being particularly impressive:
The mind is like a flood plain. The slightest rainfall can leave it awash with old stories that seep into your newer terrors and swell them, drown you under the long-forgotten feelings as your life rushes over you.
As it happens, that was a quote I’d found jarring, particularly coming from the mouth of a gauche 16-year old schoolboy. She said she’d once known a 16-year old capable of stringing that together. So what did I know? (That’s rhetorical to myself, by the way, not an indication of her demeanour). There were other passages, but I’ll pick on this one; he finds some solace in a service in the cathedral (where else?):
The miracle of a ritual. I felt my shoulders begin to ease. I thought to myself, I don’t want to believe in this. But when you run a story through your neural pathways like a line of beads through your hands, it stands to reason you unblock them, and your own life flows through afterwards, rushing out of the oxbow lakes of the plans you didn’t see through to their conclusion, the phrases that wouldn’t come till long after it was too late to use them. A hymn, nothing more than a tune and a string of words someone had invented, was somehow making things better.
Ah, ‘oxbow lakes’, an abiding memory of school geography. But ‘neural pathways’ even now?
We were all agreed that his next novel, if he so chooses to continue in this sphere now all this has been got out of his system, is highly likely to be a very good one.