I took slight umbrage with arts journalist Richard Brooks the other week. “You have probably not heard of Barney Norris,” started one of Brooks’ item in his weekly column in the Sunday Times’ Culture section.
“Yes, I absolutely have!” I harrumphed. I have been a vocal champion of Barney’s since seeing his award-winning debut play Visitors at the Bush Theatre two years ago.
But really I should thank Brooks. His piece – and related advert a few pages later in the Culture section – reminded me that Barney’s debut novel has just been released. He told me about it last year when I published a two-part interview with him to coincide with the premiere of his second play of rural rumination, Eventide, at the Arcola Theatre last September.
Was writing a novel very different from a play? It was he said, though he couldn’t pinpoint how exactly. He’s also written non-fiction (a major study of Peter Gill) and doesn’t shy away from branching out further. “It’s always felt natural to me to try to do all of it, really. Writing in as many styles as you can is a bit like trying to go on all the rides before the fair closes.”
Like Visitors and Eventide, the new novel, Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain, is set in and around Barney’s native Salisbury, over which the city’s cathedral spire looms large. In Barney’s own words: “The novel is five stories of five different lives interwoven by a car accident. It’s sort of Crash with a Mummerset accent.”
So thanks, Richard Brooks, for the reminder. I downloaded my copy of Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain that night. It’s the first novel I’ve had time to read in months and I savoured every page of it, and, as I’ve come to expect with Barney Norris, was both moved and awed by his writing: the detailed characterisations and the beauty of so many turns of phrase. Below are a few of my favourite quotes.
Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain is published by Doubleday.
Salisbury Cathedral is the sixth main character in Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain
My 12 favourite quotes from Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain
“Buildings are not beautiful because of their shapes or patterns, the bricks or stones that make them. What are transfixing are the ideas and dreaming and longing they encase. They stand as memorials to the lives of the people who made them, who raised the money to raise the walls, who buried the men who fell from the scaffolding.”
“We’re only ourselves when we’re alone, and silent. The rest is performance. When you’re talking to another person you will usually find your life reduced, all your personality focused into the facet of yourself you think is appropriate for that conversation. Or, sometimes, contact with another person can make you more than yourself, make a new soul that hangs in the air between you. But you’re never just yourself with someone else.”
“How can such huge things as feelings only exist in our heads? How is it that they never take form in the real world?”
“Perhaps all adult life was an attempt to keep alight the fires that burned when you were young, when everything was possible and new.”
“The mind is like a floodplain. The slightest rainfall can leave it awash with old stories that seep into your newer terrors and swell them, drown you under long-forgotten feelings as your life rushes back over you.”
“The mind slides back and forth, imagining tomorrow, free-associating endlessly from memory to memory because each day always seems to suggest another you have already lived, to pull you further back into the past. Of course the past is denser and pulls us more closely into its orbit. The present is only ever one day long. The past grows richer and subtler each day as it snakes behind you all the way back to the source and centre of your life.”
“I can’t imagine any life feels like a real life that isn’t lived entwined like ivy with someone.”
“That’s how your days can matter and take on a weight, if you can make another person laugh, feel something, if your life can become part of a richer pattern. That seems to me to be the one truly beautiful thing there is in the world.”
“It is almost a political act when you live in the theatre, because you turn your back on what people are supposed to value, on profit and loss, in order to participate. And I’m no great one for political acts, but I enjoy the courage of people who go in for them… My own political statement of choice would have been to be part of the theatre. To use my life as a way of arguing that people should tell stories to each other, share their lives and care about each other. That would have been my kind of politics.”
“What do you need in order to be able to say with a semblance of conviction that you had got your life right? What are the necessary components of that successful fiction?”
“To think your life was still ahead of you was only a way of delaying and robbing yourself of years when you might have been able to live deliberately, to build something. To let life happen to you was the way to bad marriages, and missed opportunity, and needing to take things back.”
“The world is ending all around us every moment we’re living. Every bar in the score of ourselves is receding already into memory, into imagination, even as we play it out. We might as well listen.”