Libraries invite readers to join One Book NI initiative with Turning For Home

Libraries NI has announced an exciting initiative One Book NI that aims to encourage as many people as possible from across the north to unite in reading the same book during October. Jenny Lee chats to Barney Norris, author of the chosen novel Turning for Home

The One Book NI chosen title is Turning for Home written by award-winning author Barney Norris. Picture by Jay Brooks
The One Book NI chosen title is Turning for Home written by award-winning author Barney Norris. Picture by Jay Brooks The One Book NI chosen title is Turning for Home written by award-winning author Barney Norris. Picture by Jay Brooks

THE Boston Tapes and anorexia collide in an intergenerational novel which has been selected by Libraries NI as its inaugural One Book NI projects – a Northern Ireland-wide book-club-style initiative which aims to get people reading and talking about the same book.

Turning For Home, by Sussex-born writer Barney Norris, is told through the words of 80-year-old Robert and his 25-year-old grand daughter Kate as they gather in Robert's home in the Hampshire countryside for his annual birthday celebration. But neither is in the mood to party: Robert has recently lost his life-partner and Kate has spent the past three years battling anorexia and is not looking forward to seeing her estranged mother again.

There’s another distraction ahead of his party as news has broken that transcripts are going to be released from the Boston tapes – the project which gathered candid interviews with former loyalist and republican paramilitaries at Boston College in the early 2000s on the understanding that they would not be made public until after the death of the interviewees.

Robert was heavily involved as an intermediary in negotiations that followed the Enniskillen bombing in 1987 and now his former IRA go-between has requested a meeting.

Turning For Home is a book that was inspired both by an illness of someone "very close" to Norris and through a genuine interest in Irish history and literature.

"This book is a real passion project for me, something I care about so much, and I published it with great trepidation, because it touches on so many lives that aren’t my own, and a lot of real pain and trouble.

"To get the chance to connect with readers about the story through the One Book campaign is a dream. I think it matters to me that someone has valued the book in Northern Ireland as well."

The young writer has already won acclaim as a playwright. His debut full-length play, Visitors (2014) won the Critics' Circle Award and the Off WestEnd Award for Most Promising Playwright, while his first novel Five Rivers Met On A Wooded Plain, was a Times bestseller.

While exploring themes of peace and reconciliation, Turning For Home is essentially a story of empathy and love, told with immense philosophical intelligence and lyricism.

"I think writing is the having of feelings, and then the arranging of words and characters so that you can prompt those feelings in others through written documents, even when you’re not there to explain them," says the 31-year-old, who for the character of Kate combined medial research with personal experience.

"I learned about anorexia closer to home. They were all just things I lived and needed to tell in order to survive," he admits.

As well as making a point about the lack of provision for anorexic care available in the UK, Norris says the book also highlighted "the lack of care woven through the very heart of the way we all live".

If he was to set discussion questions for his novel he would explore this topic further. "I suppose my book is asking people to question how we all look after each other, as individuals, as families and as a society, so I would propose discussing that in the context of the book.

"I think the book is about giving voice to unarticulated lives, stories that are hidden or suppressed. So I’d love to use the book to talk about the way some lives don’t get heard, and how that happens."

Norris acknowledges that the other half of Turning for Home was shaped during his time as resident playwright at Keble College, Oxford, where he spoke with former permanent secretary of the NIO Sir Jonathan Phillips, who is now Warden at Keble College, as well as historian and Queen's University Belfast Irish politics professor Lord Bew, who set up the Boston Tapes project, and historian Richard English, who read a draft of the novel.

"My interest in the Boston Tapes was twofold. Firstly, the history of the Troubles is the history of all these islands, and how the struggle to self-identify as people and as groups has shaped us, and I think it’s an important story wherever you’re from; secondly, my interest as a writer lies in giving voice to the unarticulated. The Boston Tapes were a superb model for doing that, and a tragic loss to the people’s history of the last century. So the project itself fascinated me."

Norris likens Turning for Home to the Queens of The Stoneage album Songs for the Deaf. Within the book he writes: "People’s libraries are a window into who they are, a map of their thinking and their lives". This is something he believes passionately in and admits, "I never really leave the library in my head".

Among the authors who have shaped him as a writer, he cites John McGahern and WB Yeats, together with "reading and getting to know Peter Gill and Bernard O'Donaghue".

Norris will undertake a four-day visit to libraries across the north from October 1 as part of the One Book NI project, hosting meet the author events and reading discussion groups.

He is currently completing a new novel and working on more plays, including an adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of The Day, but doesn't rule out further books on Northern Ireland.

"I’m hoping this book tour might help me meet people and inspire new stories."

:: For further information and to join the conversation, visit your local library or go online at Onebookni.co.uk.