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Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain

Rebecca Foster

Barney Norris
Doubleday, 288pp

Playwright Barney Norris, still in his twenties, won the Critics' Circle and Off West End Awards for Visitors. He followed this with a second play, Eventide. For his contributions to theatre the Evening Standard listed him amongst their most influential Londoners last year. It's no surprise, then, that there's something a little staged to his debut novel, Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain. The lives of the book's five narrators collide one night when a car hits a moped in Salisbury town centre. We hear from each protagonist in turn as they reflect on their losses and wonder whether religion - represented by Salisbury Cathedral and the scripture and rituals of Christianity - might be able to help.

A poetic prologue sets the characters' tragedies in perspective by invoking the wonder and vastness of Wiltshire's prehistory. 'The startled world, stirred by this confluence of [five] riverways, started to sing bright notes into the blue air. A great chord rang out in the deep heart of England'; early settlers paid homage by building Stonehenge and then, once pagan religion had ceded to Christianity, a church. 'The next iteration of the song in stone was a cathedral built in the middle of a hill fort.' First at Old Sarum and then at its new site, initial narrator Liam imagines the cathedral serving for generations as a beacon of human longing: 'Salisbury Cathedral cutting the air is a diagram of prayer, the hope at the centre of my life expressed as the burning arrow of the spire shot into the sky, asking us to look up beyond the everyday … and imagine something greater than we are.'

The transition from that lofty aspiration to the everyday grind is abrupt as the narration passes over to Rita, a sixty-something flower-seller who gets herself in trouble with the police for selling marijuana on the side. 'My Salisbury [is] the other city, the one you don't see from the cathedral,' she declares, where a seedy route takes you 'past the nightclub and the strip club and the dodgy Chinese and the cheap hotel.' In italicized flashbacks, Rita recounts how she fell in love with Jonno at age 17, only for him to cheat on her and leave her to raise their son alone. Now she's a grandmother, but still can't seem to get her life together. 'I was going down and I'd taken it all with me, all my life fallen in on my head; I felt like f***ing Samson,' she says. Rita's section is characterised by constant cursing; she keeps repeating how she has f***ed everything up. I was reminded of Francis Rebecca Foster is a freelance editor and book reviewer for various print and online publications in the US and UK. Spufford's 'Human Propensity to F*** Things Up' or 'HPtFtU', his shorthand for original sin in Unapologetic.

If Rita's the most obvious sinner, though, she's also the one most willing to look for divine help. 'You wouldn't think I'm a reader to look at me, but I read all the religious books,' she insists, and later she remarks to another character that the Bible is like 'a How to guide. I've read all the books of all the different religions. I go back to them a lot, for advice, for comfort, to make me feel better.' Rita is the liveliest and most engaging character in the novel, difficult as her expletive-strewn narrative might be to traverse. In the chapters that follow we also meet Sam, a fifteen-year-old whose father is dying of lung cancer; George, an elderly widower who may be forced to give up the family farm; Alison, a school secretary who sinks into depression whilst her husband is serving in Afghanistan; and Liam, recently returned to Salisbury to work as a security guard at Old Sarum. Although the five are ostensibly connected by the car crash - one the victim, one the driver, and the others observers and recipients of the news - they have actually crossed paths in various ways before. Rita is a common link: two characters speak with her at her flower stall; George and his wife once let her camp on their land when she had nowhere else to go; and she was Liam's drug dealer when he was a teenager.

It's not exactly a unique story - a coincidence binding disparate characters is a staple of fiction as well as film - but the Salisbury setting lends a distinctive flavour. The cathedral itself is the unifying element. George has conflicting ideas as he looks up at it: on the one hand it's an indifferent monolith ('it didn't seem to care about me at all'); on the other hand, being near it calms his thoughts, as it does for Alison when she walks around the cathedral close. Sam stumbles upon a cathedral service in progress and the ritual lightens his spirits: 'A hymn, nothing more than a tune and a string of words someone had invented, was somehow making things feel better.' As a narrator, Sam has profundity beyond his years; especially when he attempts to psychoanalyze his own mother, he doesn't sound like a teenager, making his the least authentic of the voices.

From his Old Sarum vantage point, Liam views the cathedral as an 'illustration of the way all our ordinary acts, our cups of tea and walks to the postbox and phone bills and potato peelings, are shot through with a heartbreaking and extraordinary love. That there exists in all of us a song waiting to be sung which is as heart-stopping and vertiginous as the peak of the cathedral.' Love and a uniting song: like David Nicholls, Norris prizes emotional connection and delivers a theatrical plot. If he can avoid the more clichéd aspects of a novel like One Day, he could have a long career in fiction ahead of him.