Although strictly speaking Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain is not a theatre book, it is the first novel by one of British theatre’s brightest hopes, Barney Norris.
The title refers to the muddy confluence at which Salisbury was established and the story relates the lives of five people in that city who are brought together by their connection to a road traffic accident. Although they do not know each other, their lives have touched, albeit fleetingly, before.
Told in the first person by the five individuals, the book manages to convey, with intimate detail and total believability, the lives of a slutty drug-dealing florist, an adolescent schoolboy, an old farmer, an aimless student and a lonely army wife. It is clear that the author, who is from Salisbury, has drawn on his own feelings and experiences in the writing of this book, but his insight and understanding of a thirty-something woman, whose husband is fighting in Afghanistan and whose son is away at school, is remarkable and totally convincing. He manages to inhabit and reveal his characters, not just tell their story.
In Five Rivers Barney Norris is writing about ordinary provincial people and their unfulfilled provincial lives. They are all frustrated, stifled by the numbing parochialism of small town life. It’s not that they necessarily want to break free, they just want things to be better.
Norris’s play Visitors, which I reviewed over three years ago, put me in mind of Arnold Wesker. There is something very 1957 about this young writer’s viewpoint. But whereas the angry young men of the late fifties wanted to smash things up, Barney Norris is more sensible, more subtle. Mr Norris is not, like John Osborne or John Braine, a dissenter, he is an affirmer – he is kitchen sink without the anger. He does not wield a Brillo pad to scrape the last vestiges of dirt from the bottom of a saucepan but rather uses a soapy sponge and cherishes the softness of Fairy Liquid. His viewpoint is that of a pragmatist, not a rebel and it is here that his strength lies. He is a negotiator, a diplomat who does not condemn or criticize but tries to understand and find common ground.
Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain is an excellent, intelligent and recommended read from a young writer who will go far. I am pleased to say that en route he will be writing occasional pieces for our sister publication StageTalk Magazine. ★★★★★ Michael Hasted