‘Isn’t the life of any person made up out of the telling of two tales, after all? People live in the space between the realities of their lives and the hopes they have for them. The whole world makes more sense if you remember that everyone has two lives, their real lives and their dreams, both stories only a tape’s breadth apart from each other, impossibly divided, indivisibly close.’
Every year, Robert’s family come together at a rambling old house to celebrate his birthday. Aunts, uncles, distant cousins – it has been a milestone in their lives for decades. But this year Robert doesn’t want to be reminded of what has happened since they last met – and neither, for quite different reasons, does his granddaughter Kate. Neither of them is sure they can face the party. But for both Robert and Kate, it may become the most important gathering of all.
As lyrical and true to life as Norris’s critically acclaimed debut Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain, which won a Betty Trask Award and was shortlisted for the Ondaatje Prize and Debut of the Year at the British Book Awards, this is a compelling, emotional story of family, human frailty, and the marks that love leaves on us.
So many people that I trust implicitly as readers have loved this book that I knew that it was going to be something really special before I even unwrapped it. I absolutely loved Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain and if you haven’t read it you need to add it to your TBR pile without delay as it deserves every single one of its plaudits and more.
Although I was totally absorbed in the story in Turning for Home, it is Barney Norris’ writing itself that makes it such a treat to read. The two stories of Robert and Kate are perfectly balanced and play beautifully against each other like separate instruments in an orchestra – making the power of the narrative much more resonant and memorable as a result. Some of the descriptions in this book are stunningly beautiful and sit perfectly against some of the difficult aspects of the narrative – such as Robert’s experiences through the Troubles and Kate’s difficulties with her eating disorder. Perhaps it is the contrast between the difficulties that the characters have experienced and the beauty of the writing that makes it so affecting but at times I stopped and read whole paragraphs again for myself in order to feel that I’d fully appreciated them.
Robert and Kate are distant in terms of their ages but their relationship has always been close thanks to the annual family gathering which has brought the whole family together, year upon year. Of late though, cracks have begun to show in the family dynamic. Kate has been struggling after her hospitalisation and the tragic accident that took life as she knew it and smashed it into tiny pieces. This year the party will be a very different affair – it’s the first one after losing her grandmother and there is also the prospect of seeing the mother that she’s been estranged from for years. It is far from the idea party atmosphere and this feeling is skilfully conjured through Barney Norris’ deft description and believable characters.
As well as Kate’s present-day struggles being so well crafted, we are also given a very vivid insight into Robert’s traumatic experiences during The Troubles. Barney Norris has revealed that the Boston Tapes – where many truths about this turbulent period were revealed – was his original starting point for writing this novel and through the character of Robert he certainly humanises this brutal and dangerous time in modern history.
Robert’s story is also very vividly described and I was soon immersed in his dramatic past. It was a period that I didn’t know as much about as I thought and I was engrossed by Robert’s role as we travelled back in time with him and discovered the true nature of his role in these bloody events. I really enjoyed the film 71 but knew very little else about the role of government officials at that time and how close many of them sailed to the wind as they attempted to navigate at a time where no-one could really be trusted
It is the power of the past to affect our present and the past’s hold over us which Barney Norris conveys so skilfully in this wonderful novel. Even though on the surface they are dealing with very different issues, Kate and Robert are essentially connected by more than divides them. The catalyst of the party where everyone will be coming together for a celebration is an ideal ‘crucible’ to explore how the past haunts us and Barney Norris really makes us feel like we are there with them, experiencing the pain of the past and the fights that we’ve all struggled with on our journeys as human beings.
I absolutely recommend this read for people who really like to get their teeth into a story and those readers who enjoy a novel that is as far from formulaic and predictable as it is possible to be. In the present reading climate, many books can seem very same-y and this was a real palate cleanser for me. I loved the characterisation as much as I enjoyed the narrative style and I will definitely be recommending Turning for Home to friends of mine who enjoy a thought-provoking and beautiful read. Bravo, Barney Norris – it’s only January but Turning Home is really looking like a contender for my ‘Best of 2018’ list already. Look how fantastic it looks in my latest #OnTheShelfie
Writer on the Shelf
Barney Norris was born in Sussex in 1987, and grew up in Salisbury. Upon leaving university he founded the theatre company Up In Arms. He won the Critics’ Circle and Offwestend Awards for Most Promising Playwright for his debut full-length play Visitors. He is the Martin Esslin Playwright in Residence at Keble College, Oxford. Barney’s new play Nightfall is one of the three inaugural productions at Nicholas Hytner’s new Bridge Theatre, beginning early 2018.