Culture

Undercurrent by Barney Norris review – a meditation on love and loss

Like much of Barney Norris’s work (his 2018 novel Turning for Home and his latest play, We Started to Sing), Undercurrent deals with beginnings and endings, love and loss, and borrows from his own family’s experience. It opens at a wedding where Ed meets a young woman, Amy, who claims he rescued her from drowning when they were children. Ed feels the pull of something, as does Juliet, his girlfriend of six years. Shortly afterwards, they split up and he begins to see Amy.

At first you think this is going to be a novel about thirtysomething relationships, lovers recognising the “secret currents which align our lives”, but then the focus shifts. Norris offers a profound meditation on dealing with loss and finding your moorings in destabilising times. Throughout, he compares the ebb and flow of life to the undercurrents of water.

Interwoven with Ed’s narrative are chapters describing his forebears – from his great-grandparents’ meeting in India in 1911 and their relocation to a remote sheep farm in Wales. These snapshots from the past are Ed’s reimagining of “the stories that had shaped and brought us here… drawn through time by deep, irresistible currents”. He asks: “How far does that history reach into us, control us?”

He also recalls his childhood with his mother, alcoholic father and stepfather. His mother wants him to take over the sheep farm. Ed resists, desperate to forge his own path. Eventually, he discovers that “to know that someone cares about whether or not you’re around is the heart of all meaning, the heart of belonging”.

For the most part, Norris’s prose is pleasingly simple and direct but every so often he raises the bar and delivers a stunningly crafted, perceptive description that will resonate with many, such as this one: “The loss of a mother was like all the lights going out on the shore, and I was left alone on the waves, turning back in the hope of receiving some encouragement, seeing only the dark instead.”

  • Undercurrent by Barney Norris 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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