“Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain” by Barney Morris – one car accident and five people involved, each with a different story

Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain by Barney Morris is set in Salisbury and the landscape around the city and its history are referenced a lot in the text. It is a book about a car accident in which a number of people are involved, as the participants or as observers. One person is in a coma as the story gets underway and we see her version of her story first followed by four other individuals who add nuance to the original story as well as recounting their own. This means that we see the events which lead up to the accident from more than one viewpoint and things which seem quite clear in one narrative become more complicated when seen from the point of view of others. All of these people are ordinary and each is at a point of life where things are changing or might change.

The narrative is told in the five different voices and this is done very well. The plot also is told piecemeal and doesn’t really become clear until the end of the book. Because these are ordinary people with ordinary problems there aren’t any big, exciting revelations but if you adjust to the low keyed way in which the plot is presented and the story told you find the full story building up in layers.

Because of the split narration it is difficult to engage with any one character in this book although much of it revolves around Rita, a flower seller with a chaotic and destructive life. She makes bad decisions, often because she has few choices, and although I should feel more sympathy for her I did have a habit of wishing that she would get herself out of the mess that she is in – feeling sorry for her and a bit frustrated with what she did prevented me from total engaging. For the other lives, we dipped in and out as though they were short stories.

This is an interesting book and I suspect that if you know Salisbury it presents the city well – there were a lot of descriptions of what looked like actual locations but as I don’t know Salisbury I cannot tell you how accurate they are. The novel felt that it was grounded in a real location though.

I liked the idea of this book and I also liked the writing and the use of different narratives which is something I have enjoyed with other novels (The Poisonwood Bible comes immediately to mind). The story, as told here, didn’t live up to the potential. I felt that this was a book that didn’t quite succeed, for me anyway. I do think, however, that it was worth reading for the idea and descriptions as much as anything.

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