The best collage novels

Barney Norris Author Of Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain
By Barney Norris

Who am I?

My first novel Five Rivers Met On A Wooded Plain was a collage novel; an interweaving of several voices in order to create a composite portrait of the city of Salisbury, which told several stories as a way of revealing more of the life of that place. Since then I’ve written three more novels, all of them interested in the effects of using different voices to tell different parts of the story. I think that polyphony makes for great books, and these are four examples of that—different ways of weaving multiple tales together.

I wrote...

Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain

By Barney Norris,

Book cover of Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain

What is my book about?

There exists in all of us a song waiting to be sung which is as heart-stopping and vertiginous as the peak of the cathedral. That is the meaning of this quiet city, where the spire soars into the blue, where rivers and stories weave into one another, where lives intertwine.

One quiet evening in Salisbury, the peace is shattered by a serious car crash. At that moment, five lives collide—a flower seller, a schoolboy, an army wife, a security guard, a widower—all facing their own personal disasters. As one of those lives hangs in the balance, the stories of all five unwind, drawn together by connection and coincidence into a web of love, grief, disenchantment, and hope that perfectly represents the joys and tragedies of small-town life.

The books I picked & why

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Life a User's Manual

By Georges Perec, David Bellos (translator),

Book cover of Life a User's Manual

Why this book?

Life A User’s Manual is an astonishing book. Shaped like a jigsaw, and telling the story of an extraordinary jigsaw, a single second passes in the course of its hundreds of pages, but in that second the book visits so many different, extraordinary worlds, and finds a way, miraculously, to join them all together.

Let the Great World Spin

By Colum McCann,

Book cover of Let the Great World Spin

Why this book?

Let The Great World Spin orbits around Philip Petit’s high-wire walk between the Twin Towers in New York in 1974; an amazing feat that has, of course, only become more charged and potent with time. The novel creates a kaleidoscope of lives touched by that breathtaking act, as well as capturing, in heartstopping prose, the magnitude of the act itself.

Cannery Row

By John Steinbeck,

Book cover of Cannery Row

Why this book?

Cannery Row is a non-fiction novel, and I think it’s the best thing Steinbeck ever did. An exploration of an itinerant community in Monterey, California, it builds up layer on layer of life, creating a rich compound portrait of marginal, precariat life in the sun, the hardship of that, but also the freedom and dignity and bravery and joy.

Olive Kitteridge

By Elizabeth Strout,

Book cover of Olive Kitteridge

Why this book?

This is one of the really great books of our time. Olive Kitteridge is an anti-protagonist in her own story, a woman who passes through the chapters of this novel, only visiting the tales Strout shares with the reader. She is always present and always peripheral, and the distance that places between us and her somehow seems to help us see this woman with tender clarity.

The Road to San Giovanni

By Italo Calvino, Tim Parks (translator),

Book cover of The Road to San Giovanni

Why this book?

Calvino, like Perec, was an experimental novelist, interested in imposing games and rules on what he created. Here, he took the convention of the short story collection and used it to dramatise the arrival of the twentieth century into rural Italy—the machine age, but also the fascist age, and the consuming fires of the Second World War. The incremental tension that comes from time passing is a powerful reading experience.

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