Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain is a novel set in Salisbury, and tells the story of the lives of five people who witness a car accident. The metaphorical element to the title shows that the writer aspires to give a poetic significance to these stories, the rivers obviously referring to the five characters, as well as the five rivers that come together around Salisbury to form the Avon.
Norris begins with a historical overview of the development of human life in Salisbury, a kind of poetic account of the way that different generations of humans used the landscape as a backdrop to their religious myths and beliefs. This is another way in which he gives a more universal significance to the events and characters in the book: they are emblematic of the story of mankind lived out here in Salisbury, and nearby Stonehenge, over thousands of years.
After this fairly brief introduction, the book is divided into five sections, each of which is a first person narrative, telling the sometimes overlapping stories of the five characters. The first is an old woman who has lived a life of hedonistic freedom, joining traveller communities and taking drugs. She is ostracised by her family: her son disliked the lifestyle and the woman’s unreliability, and settled down as a schoolteacher. Currently she sells flowers from a stall in Salisbury, moonlighting by providing marijuana to the local youth.
The second character is a young boy in love. He is part of a choir and meets a young girl there, starting his first romantic relationship. Meanwhile at home dark storms begin to gather in a way that will dramatically affect his life. Next we have an old farmer, the driver of the car involved in the accident. His life has just taken a turn for the worse, as we find out. The fourth character is an army wife living out at Tidworth. She is concerned about the direction her life has taken, as we can see from the title of this section, Deep in the Middle of Nowhere. Finally there is a young man who has come back to Salisbury, as that was where he grew up. His life has become empty and directionless and he is trying to find himself.
As you can see from this brief list, these are characters with a singular number of problems: their stories involve death, divorce, childlessness, love and family loyalty. As well as being in some way emblematic of humankind in general, the characters’ paths cross in various ways: so the young man in the final chapter works as a security guard and in this role meets the boy. The old farmer often bought his shoes at the boy’s father’s shoe shop, the flower seller lived for a while on the farmer’s land, the young man was saved from a life threatening accident by the farmer’s wife. These coincidental events are, I suppose, meant to show the interconnectedness of human life.
I did enjoy this book. It was not a difficult read, and as I live fairly near to Salisbury, and have passed through the area on many occasions, I enjoyed thinking about the geography – Odstock Hospital, Harnham, Cranbourne Chase – and wondering how accurate it was, or where exactly a certain character was at a particular point in the story. I did wonder whether each character literally reflects a different river. Tidworth is in the north, and the river Bourne flows from there into Salisbury. The farmer lived out to the west, below Cranbourne Chase – a beautiful area: the Ebble flows down from there. However, I don’t know enough of the rest of the geography to be certain of the other connections, and it would be a fairly pointless exercise anyway. It would just mean that the metaphor of the rivers was a little bit more artificial and exact. And in a way that is the problem with the whole book: the five rivers refer to five people, and Salisbury refers to human life- so what?
But that’s not a significant criticism. This book is really about the five characters. Each is presented by a first person narrator, and the writer is successful at creating these five different interior monologues, which seem real and are interesting. I was encouraged to read on and find out more about them, and my interest in the ways they were interconnected and the geography of the area was an additional reason to persevere.
My main criticism of the book would be different. I know it’s a drama and so we need to expect dramatic situations. The writer presents these in abundance. When I say dramatic, I mean in the sense that Coronation Street is dramatic: it deals with situations of life and death, and with human relationships, family ties. For me though that did make it all a little bit too sentimental. I suppose everyone’s life is a matter of drama to that individual, and in a way that’s the point of the book – but we are all a bit self obsessed I suppose and these characters certainly were.