My Review of "Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain"
"Five rivers ran together and the earth sang in celebration at the top of it's voice, a music hidden in the details of everyday, in footfalls of thousands of locals, ringing of cash registers and the great soaring dream of the spire,"........"the ideas and dreams encased in the buildings is what makes them beautiful."
And so begins a novel in love with stories and dreams, thoughts, silences and words. And Salisbury. Here in this city is where "Five rivers flow ....to make a single voice of the Avon." This is Norris's inspiration for his first book. Five stories, from five very different people, whose voices weave into one another as their lives become intertwined through an horrific car accident. The rivers and their free flow through an ancient city, gathering extra "phrases" and "clauses" along the way and pouring into the "mouths of women and men" is an exceptionally strong metaphor for how stories work too and a lot of this tale is a mediation on the written word and the art of story telling. The opening, which picks up the reader and carries them along on the current, reminded me of Graham Swift's "Waterland" which also reflects on the similarities between rivers and people's lives. Or perhaps some of Joanna Harris's novels which use nature as metaphors for love and life, and reality is often mixed in a lyrical song of magic and fairy tale.
My favourite story was "A River Curling Like Smoke" and focused on sixteen year old Sam. For quiet and shy Sam, "talking isn't natural at home"and "we ate guilt and silence for supper". His section is about coming of age, anguish, first love and fitting in as "people don't know they're weird if you don't tell them." For Sam, stories are an escape into another world; a chance to make sense of the world and a way to process life and emotions."A story lay within him and he would not sleep until he spoke it." Italics are used for the "story telling" sections which at first feel like fairy tales but then become more real as Sam's emotional journey of self discovery continues. For me, this was the most amazing section of the book and I could fill five more posts quoting the stunningly mesmerising prose. It is sad, moving and captivating.
The final story contemplates the role of the theatre. Norris is an acclaimed playwright so his musings here are interesting and pertinent. The fifth voice explains that theatre is a way of people "telling stories to each other, sharing their lives and caring about each other." Music is described as a "ritual", a place where "poems play themselves out" and the brain has to switch off and listen in order to process or solve its concerns. There is however a sense of sadness and emptiness in many of the segments - a sense of needing to search for deeper meanings or fill the loneliness and emptiness many of us carry around with us. People will listen to something "mediocre that someone else invented just to fill the silence of their lives." But, "every bar in the score of ourselves is receding already into memory, into imagination....might as well listen." I loved the statement "we grow into our little neuroses ....the little unhappiness at the heart of us."
In a sense it is a spiritual novel. The cathedral features in all the stories, towering above them, rising to the sky; it feels very symbolic and as if it holds some magical power over the city. There is no religion in this novel but are the stories themselves some expression of faith? As one voice admits, "My life is so small and unenlightened....If I were in a story...." Stories are escapism, a fantasy, an alternative.... a place of hope and dreams.
Norris conjures images and poetic metaphors with immense skill, lyricism, power and beauty. His writing is outstanding. The five characters are all different; all suffering, all flawed, all insightful, all immersed in their own journey and story. This book is so multilayered I could write a dissertation on it and it truly shows the power and capability of our language when it is in the hands of a gifted writer. Norris is clearly passionate about language, poetry and mesmerising power of storytelling.
My favourite line in the whole novel was:
"The imaginary world. It will always be a beautifully dangerous place to visit."
Surely this quote deserves to become as over quoted and referenced as some of the other famous lines in literature such as LP Hartley's "the past is a foreign country..." and of course the thousands from Shakespeare. I will be absolutely guilty of using it every time I come across a stunning story or want to entice someone into reading.
In "The Bookseller" Magazine (12/2/16) Norris explained that he wanted to "draw a map of the Salisbury through people" and"evoke what is extraordinary about the ordinary," how "the hidden currents of life draw together into something symphonic no matter how random they seem." This is an outstanding debut of great literary accomplishment. If you love words, stories, people and Salisbury - read this!
Thank you so much to NetGalley for the advanced copy of this book in return for a fair and honest review.
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