Technically great but rather miserable – Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain by Barney Norris

Book Reviews, Book Thoughts, Uncategorized, Writing, Writing Thoughts

When a car crash sends a woman off her bike in Salisbury, five different people interact with the moment in different ways, bringing their experience of the city and of life. We meet Rita, flower stall holder and drug dealer, whose life has been disaster after disaster but who meets it with a sort of profane bravery, teenage Sam who is trying to cope with his Father’s illness and his first love, elderly George whose wife has just died and who was driving the car, lonely military wife Alison who misses her husband and feels she has missed her son, and security guard Liam who has returned to Salisbury for reasons he can’t quite explain. 

This book was clever. It was revealing; it got under the skin of totally different people, showed their thoughts and feelings and fears and loneliness. It exposed different ages, walks of life, experiences. It told first person tales through different voices and styles, coming from the central point of the crash and going backwards and forwards with each character, painting a picture of that moment and it’s significance. And it made me never, ever want to go to Salisbury.

But for the first time ever I did actually go a couple of weeks ago, and was surprised to find it a pretty nice place, rather than one filled with totally miserable people.

Because that was the only thing that went wrong for me in this book. We were taken into the secret terror of humanity, the desperation and misery and self hatred and loneliness and confusion. We had all of the tragedy, but none of the triumph. For surely this is humanity’s greatest attribute; despite the direst circumstance, at some points comes a glimmer of hope, or a laugh, or something. Here, obviously, we were privy to the darkest voices and direst moments in these people’s lives, which must explain this, but I would have liked a bit more hope.

I read this book slowly, just a bit each evening as I put my daughter to bed. Usually I can’t do this as I get to involved, but it took me a long time with this book. Obviously it switches perspectives as we know the different characters (each only gets one different -length chunk of the book), and I was definitely more interested in some than others, but I didn’t get properly into it for a long time, and I think it was because of the misery.

I’m not sure what the overall message was. There was some sort of preface telling the story of Salisbury’s founding and growth, so perhaps it is a novel of place: but if so, does Norris really hate Salisbury that much? Or perhaps, as the character’s lives gradually are shown to be vaguely connected, it is about our common misery and interconnectedness? But the point isn’t made that strongly. It is a little time since I read it, so I know that a few of the characters philosophised and theorised, but no sentiments stick out to me particularly. Perhaps there isn’t a single point at all?

The most impressive part of this novel is definitely the characters portrayed through their narration, diaries, interviews. I am amazed at one person getting into such diverse character’s heads and making them come alive, almost always authentically.

Sometimes reviewing a book makes the good points stick out to me more than they did beforehand, and I think this is the case here. I try to leave a gap between my finishing books and reviewing them for this reason; so that I can have some distance from my emotional response. I don’t think I’d read this book again, just for how depressing it was – but I don’t think I’d stop anyone from reading it. In fact, I’d be glad to hear your thoughts!

Thank you, Transworld digital, for this literary experience. My receiving this book gratis has not made my brain wonky or my tongue twisted: these above are my honest opinions.

4 thoughts on “Technically great but rather miserable – Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain by Barney Norris

  1. So, I took a rather different perspective on the book:

    I can see what you mean though, but I took the downward emotions in the book as an observation of realistic people. I didn’t read in anything unfortunate about Salisbury and I really liked the passage at the start.

    That said, I live in Salisbury and I am a moany git, so I guess you might be right :D

    1. Oh I’m so glad to find someone else who has read it! I don’t really disagree with your points at all, but I suppose by selecting these stories he selects miserable stories. Of course every life and every person has misery, but that is only a part of it: to me it felt a bit immature and/or manipulative, using only misery for effect. Salisbury seemed lovely when I went!!

      1. I went to the book launch. The author is a successful playwrite, this being his first book. I think you can tell, the multi layered structure and the heavily emotional characters oozed the stage for me. Maybe that’s part of its feeling??

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