Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain by Barney NorrisWonted for Wiltshire
According to the Eastern Orthodox Church’s theory of icons, what distinguishes an icon from an idol is its ability to lead beyond itself and to allow the observer access to another reality. For Norris, the spire of Salisbury Cathedral is such an icon. But the cathedral, rather than pointing to God, reflects those who see it back to themselves. Mysteriously it provokes profound introspection among a diverse group of local residents, and through them, perhaps even in the reader who can appreciate their unique voices.
The lyrical voice of the narrator as he describes the spiritual pre-history of the cathedral is immediately captivating: “The startled world, stirred by this confluence of riverways, started to sing bright notes into the blue air. A great chord rang out in the deep heart of England, and feeling welled up through the skin of the water like a shaft of light that breaks through cloud. The earth was awake and alive and amazed by every sensation it experienced.” Indeed, as one character has it,“Folk in Wiltshire don’t half look backward sometimes.”
Such lyricism anticipates the very different voices of five people: The unfortunate semi-prostitute, part time drug dealer and flower seller, who says “I hate the red eye [the aircraft warning light] of that spire. Staring into you like Lord of the Rings.” The love-struck, high-testosterone teenager who has yet to find any voice at all but for whom the spire is the centre of his deteriorating childhood world, “jutting like a plug from the navel of the city” and through which he is able to appreciate the “miracle of ritual.” The grieving old farmer who experiences his despair through the fabric of the cathedral building itself, “I looked up at it, and it didn’t seem to care about me at all.” The soldier’s wife and would-be actress (writing in what looks like the second person to her husband, but isn’t: Dear Diary constitutes a memoir not a letter), reassuring herself that she is something other than being a now-superfluous parent, and for whom Salisbury inspires hope. A somewhat confused young man who, although born in the city, takes the icon quite literally as a sign that he should move on to greater things, or at least to other people.
Each voice is alternately experiential and reflective, in the first and third person. The voices only exist when they are narrating, so suggesting that it is necessary to live one’s life as a narrative, to “try to tell it like a story, make a shape of experience [one] can control, find a way to understand it, make a moral out of random experience and live by that.” This, lest we become nothing more than “fucking suitcases buffeting our way through lost luggage.”
Of course the narratives intersect and flow into one another, as they must do in life as well as literature. They modify each other as they all get told. The effect of Norris’s prose on me is eerie. It’s as if the stories create a new voice as they touch one another. This is a voice neither in first or third, but in the second person. ‘You’, the reader are not just being addressed implicitly but explicitly brought into the whole through personal history, emotion, and a bit of sentimental nostalgia. I find it intriguing as a technique and satisfying as a literary experience even if it is largely dominated by sex, booze, drugs and death. There’s clearly a lot going on in Wiltshire.
Nevado Mismi, Source of the Amazon River
Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain by Barney Norris review – an insightful debut
I was hooked from the first page. It's the real stuff. That is the meaning of this quiet city, where the spire soars into the blue, where rivers and stories weave into one another, where lives intertwine. One quiet evening in Salisbury, the peace is shattered by a serious car crash. At that moment, five lives 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, the stories of all five unwind, drawn together by connection and coincidence into a web of love, grief, disenchantment and hope that perfectly represents the joys and tragedies of small town life. Everything he writes about love, loss, grief, desolation, and moments of hope and illumination rings absolutely true.
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L iterary 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. She is not stupid, but neither is she educated, and her life has been a series of wrong turns. 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.
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I was hooked from the first page. It's the real stuff. That is the meaning of this quiet city, where the spire soars into the blue, where rivers and stories weave into one another, where lives intertwine. One quiet evening in Salisbury, the peace is shattered by a serious car crash. At that moment, five lives collide — a flower seller, a schoolboy, an army wife, a security guard, a widower — all facing their own personal disasters.