Friday 30 September 2016

A promising but callow debut novel

Fiction: Five Rivers Met on a Woodied Plain, Barney Norris, Doubleday, hdbk, 280 pages, €17

Published 19/06/2016 | 02:30

Making waves: Barney Norris is Playwright in Residence at one of Oxford's colleges.
Making waves: Barney Norris is Playwright in Residence at one of Oxford's colleges.
Five Rivers Met On A Plain

Barney Norris isn't yet 30, but already has made significant waves as a writer. A native of the heritage town of Salisbury, in the south of England, he's won critical plaudits and awards for his plays, and is currently Playwright in Residence at one of Oxford's colleges. This isn't his first time in print, either: a collection of three short dramas was published last autumn.

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Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain, Norris' debut novel, is set in his hometown and takes its title from the Salisbury geography, where five different rivers really do come together. And that title has a second meaning: the book tells five stories of five people, whose lives intersect (to greater and lesser degrees) on the open plains of the overall narrative.

First, we meet a 60-something market-trader: a ragged, troubled woman who has just been busted for small-time dope-dealing, has a sundered relationship with her child and, as she keeps reminding us (and herself), has nobody in her life. Then a schoolboy on the cusp of adulthood, falling in love for the first time and having to deal with his father's terminal cancer.

In the third story, we come to the major nexus of their lives: a traffic accident, which will leave one person dead and others profoundly influenced. Here, we also meet our third person, a farmer whose wife has died. The final two stories are told by an army wife, through a series of letters to her husband, and a security guard, whose account we've already met in a brief prologue, thus bringing the novel to a nicely rounded conclusion.

It's difficult to expand much more on the plot without giving too much away (that ominous accusation "Spoiler!" hangs over modern-day reviewers like a Sword of Damocles). One major character is killed, one kills inadvertently, two others witness this seismic event.

All the narratives are delivered in the first-person: a tricky feat to manage in fiction but Norris mostly pulls it off - the characters are well-delineated and feel real, albeit with a few awkward moments. (The teenage boy is at times unfeasibly philosophical and lyrical for, well, a teenage boy.)

You want to be kind to a young debut writer, and as a first novel by a 20-something - just a kid, in literary terms - Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain is a solid start. The work shows a lot of promise that Norris will one day produce something special. This novel, unfortunately, isn't quite there.

The writing throughout is fine. Much of it reminded me of David Mitchell's work, particularly Black Swan Green, in how it captures the rhythms, tones and sounds of life in a middling-sized town. And it really is nice to read an English novel set outside of Oxbridge or London and/or its exurban sprawl.

On a deeper level, though, there's something a bit - juvenile is a mean and unfair word - we'll say callow about Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain. The themes and observations are often facile and obvious.

Even the opening (and revisited) metaphor of the world singing its song is sweet in its own way; but at the same time it strikes me as the kind of thing better suited to a Eurovision entrant than a literary novel. A cynic might wonder if it would have been published, at least in this form, had Norris not already had some juice as a writer; it feels rather like an early draft.

I didn't find the book to be a chore to read, or anything like that; it's fine. But I'm afraid, on finishing, it went into my 'charity-shop' pile rather than the 'keep-for-future-reading' one.

Darragh McManus's novels include Shiver the Whole Night Through and The Polka Dot Girl

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