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Undercurrent by Barney Norris review – a fine study of fate v free will | Fiction

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From his 2016 debut, Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain, prolific novelist and playwright Barney Norris has never been afraid to address the Big Stuff. The brevity of life; the fragility of love; the mysteries of memory and consciousness. Through an array of unnervingly convincing ventriloquised voices, he has excelled at pinpointing the pivotal moments in his characters’ emotional lives. His fourth book, Undercurrent, is equally engaged with universal themes, with a Hardyesque focus on chance, agency and grief. However, while each of his first three novels transfixed the reader with a series of claustrophobic, almost unbearably intense monologues, Norris switches here to the ventilated space of a single first-person voice.

We meet the thirtysomething narrator, Ed, at a wedding, stuck in an unhappy relationship with his indifferent girlfriend, Juliet: “I have stopped being happy somewhere … When did that happen? And what am I going to do about it?” Ed decides that he has become “unmoored in the midst of life”, but his fate is changed by encountering Amy, the wedding’s photographer. Except it’s not the first time they’ve met. He discovers that Amy is the girl he saved from drowning during a childhood swimming misadventure; a cosmic accident, and an opportunity he feels strangely impelled to explore: “These choices present themselves to us thousands of times every day, and turn into our lives.” They quickly become a couple and begin a life of tentative cohabitation, meeting Amy’s adoptive parents and Ed’s own mother and stepfather on the Welsh farm where he grew up.

The chapters describing Ed and Amy’s sweet, rather conventional relationship are juxtaposed with plunges into the deep past of 1911, where we discover the Indian heritage of Ed’s ancestors and the unpredictable blows of fate that shaped their lives. While this narrative choice is reminiscent of Sunjeev Sahota’s recent novel China Room, it’s not as fully successful or integrated as it might be. We long to return to Ed in the present, and his elegant catastrophising: “It is so brief, this thing we’re in, so fragile, and only one thing is certain – the end approaching each of us.”

Like the everyman heroes favoured by Julian Barnes and David Nicholls, Ed is a certain type: provincial, sexually timid, prudent with money, but fiercely principled and deeply emotional underneath the awkwardness and reserve. As stolidly lower-middle class and British as a fish finger tea, Ed is torn between thought and action, neurotically aware, like Hardy’s Tess, that his own death date is “a day which lay sly and unseen among all the other days of the year”. Though he lives in London and writes advertorial copy for a living, there’s little urban amplitude to his existence. Instead, it is his own interior interrogation that bears the novel’s philosophical weight: the idea “that somewhere there’s a centre, there’s a place called home that’s the rootnote of your life”.

This search for home leads Ed back to the farm. When his mother is taken seriously ill, he’s forced to unpick their simultaneously antagonistic and sentimental relationship, along with his attitude towards his tenderly attentive stepfather, and the ghost of his dead alcoholic father. Yet even in the face of a crisis he can’t help meditating on “these secret currents which align our lives”. Even as you fear his near-constant ruminations on life are impeding the action, you realise they are the real action of the story and make peace with them.

The novel’s title is taken from Bill Evans’s 1962 album Undercurrent, which Ed plays in the car on his long drives to Wales: “The rhythms surprise and mislead; I find myself listening uneasily, not knowing what’s coming next.” The theme of determinism versus free will is finely expressed by the metaphor of the unseen undercurrent; how life’s circumscribing duties and habits are undone by the unexpected. While once he yearned to “live clear of the current that took hold of most people’s lives and wore them down”, Ed now sees he must embrace change in his new life with Amy, whatever it may bring.

By the end, Norris hits this universal note squarely and successfully. At this point, the book’s visual imagery – birds, shadow and sunlight and, most importantly, water – is superbly under control. Undercurrent is a defiantly unfashionable, heartfelt, emotionally vulnerable novel about mothers and sons, letting go of the past and saying what you need to say to your loved ones before it’s too late.

Jude Cook’s novel Jacob’s Advice is published by Unbound. Undercurrent is published by Doubleday (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.


From his 2016 debut, Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain, prolific novelist and playwright Barney Norris has never been afraid to address the Big Stuff. The brevity of life; the fragility of love; the mysteries of memory and consciousness. Through an array of unnervingly convincing ventriloquised voices, he has excelled at pinpointing the pivotal moments in his characters’ emotional lives. His fourth book, Undercurrent, is equally engaged with universal themes, with a Hardyesque focus on chance, agency and grief. However, while each of his first three novels transfixed the reader with a series of claustrophobic, almost unbearably intense monologues, Norris switches here to the ventilated space of a single first-person voice.

We meet the thirtysomething narrator, Ed, at a wedding, stuck in an unhappy relationship with his indifferent girlfriend, Juliet: “I have stopped being happy somewhere … When did that happen? And what am I going to do about it?” Ed decides that he has become “unmoored in the midst of life”, but his fate is changed by encountering Amy, the wedding’s photographer. Except it’s not the first time they’ve met. He discovers that Amy is the girl he saved from drowning during a childhood swimming misadventure; a cosmic accident, and an opportunity he feels strangely impelled to explore: “These choices present themselves to us thousands of times every day, and turn into our lives.” They quickly become a couple and begin a life of tentative cohabitation, meeting Amy’s adoptive parents and Ed’s own mother and stepfather on the Welsh farm where he grew up.

The chapters describing Ed and Amy’s sweet, rather conventional relationship are juxtaposed with plunges into the deep past of 1911, where we discover the Indian heritage of Ed’s ancestors and the unpredictable blows of fate that shaped their lives. While this narrative choice is reminiscent of Sunjeev Sahota’s recent novel China Room, it’s not as fully successful or integrated as it might be. We long to return to Ed in the present, and his elegant catastrophising: “It is so brief, this thing we’re in, so fragile, and only one thing is certain – the end approaching each of us.”

Like the everyman heroes favoured by Julian Barnes and David Nicholls, Ed is a certain type: provincial, sexually timid, prudent with money, but fiercely principled and deeply emotional underneath the awkwardness and reserve. As stolidly lower-middle class and British as a fish finger tea, Ed is torn between thought and action, neurotically aware, like Hardy’s Tess, that his own death date is “a day which lay sly and unseen among all the other days of the year”. Though he lives in London and writes advertorial copy for a living, there’s little urban amplitude to his existence. Instead, it is his own interior interrogation that bears the novel’s philosophical weight: the idea “that somewhere there’s a centre, there’s a place called home that’s the rootnote of your life”.

This search for home leads Ed back to the farm. When his mother is taken seriously ill, he’s forced to unpick their simultaneously antagonistic and sentimental relationship, along with his attitude towards his tenderly attentive stepfather, and the ghost of his dead alcoholic father. Yet even in the face of a crisis he can’t help meditating on “these secret currents which align our lives”. Even as you fear his near-constant ruminations on life are impeding the action, you realise they are the real action of the story and make peace with them.

The novel’s title is taken from Bill Evans’s 1962 album Undercurrent, which Ed plays in the car on his long drives to Wales: “The rhythms surprise and mislead; I find myself listening uneasily, not knowing what’s coming next.” The theme of determinism versus free will is finely expressed by the metaphor of the unseen undercurrent; how life’s circumscribing duties and habits are undone by the unexpected. While once he yearned to “live clear of the current that took hold of most people’s lives and wore them down”, Ed now sees he must embrace change in his new life with Amy, whatever it may bring.

By the end, Norris hits this universal note squarely and successfully. At this point, the book’s visual imagery – birds, shadow and sunlight and, most importantly, water – is superbly under control. Undercurrent is a defiantly unfashionable, heartfelt, emotionally vulnerable novel about mothers and sons, letting go of the past and saying what you need to say to your loved ones before it’s too late.

Jude Cook’s novel Jacob’s Advice is published by Unbound. Undercurrent is published by Doubleday (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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