Book Review: Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain by Barney Norris

5 rivers met on a wooded plain

I was sent this book months ago courtesy of the generous people at Double Day.  In fact as I read this I see that Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain was published exactly a year ago.  When I’m sent a book I feel it is my responsibility to read it and review it.  My slight problem is I only really want to write positive reviews, honest yes, but largely positive.  Authors will have poured blood sweat and tears into their work and I don’t think it is especially kind or helpful of me to write lots of negative and unhelpful comments because I haven’t enjoyed their book.  This is my roundabout way of saying I initially struggled with this book.  Unusually I gave up on it with the thought that I would come back to it sometime.  Over the next few months it sat on the pile beside my bed catching my eye every now and again reminding me of its presence, so last week I gave it another go.  I went on to thoroughly enjoy it but in the spirit of honest reviews I think it only fair to say why I struggled inititally.

This is the first novel by award winning playwright Barney Norris.   Set in Salisbury it tells the story of the moment when 5 lives are brought together in a most unexpected way.  A flower-seller, a school boy, an army wife a security guard and a widower  are all involved in one way or another in a serious car crash.  Each character is already facing their own personal struggles.  This novel exposes these individual struggles and lives, giving a voices and a story to each character. Their stories are told individually before they are carefully and gradually drawn together.

The first chapter is gritty and raw and coarse and littered with language and swearing that I struggle with when written repeatedly.  I understand why Norris has chosen to use the language he uses but for me it grated and I got tired of reading it.  I know for many this won’t be a problem but for me it was which is why I put it down.  If like me this puts you off be assured after the first chapter the language settles down!

There is so much in this book, Salisbury with its cathedral and spires is a character and a voice on its own and clearly one Barney Norris knows well.  Exploring each character and their individual worlds is a successful tool and makes the connections and coincidences which are eventually revealed surprising, and yet absolutely right.  Each voice is heartbreaking in its own way.  The detail of each characters inner and outer turmoil is so perceptive and clearly carved out, I read some of this book with a heaviness lurking in the pit of my stomach.  Most moving for me was the army wife, at home waiting, living a kind of half life with so much unfulfilled potential.  More than any other character I wanted it all to be well for her.

The culmination of the novel is arrived at in quite a gentle way, characters and events are neatly woven together and I finished the book feeling not just content but relieved and satisfied. Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain made me think not just about the fragility of the human condition but about the connections we all have unknowingly with the people we walk past in the street or sit opposite to on the bus.  Our live are unknowingly and sometimes inextricably intertwined.

Thank you to Double Day for the proof copy of this book.

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