To the River by Olivia Laing

Normally, I don’t tend to jump straight into a gift book as I’ll be enmeshed in either a review book or something which has called to me strongly or just whatever happens to have taken my fancy at the time. However, Mr. Kaggsy’s inspired choice of “To the River” as a Valentine’s Day gift just had to be the next book I picked up. It’s one I’ve been aware of for ages, pretty sure that I wanted to read it but somehow I just never got round to picking up a copy. The draw, of course, is the setting and the luminous presence of Virginia Woolf in the narrative; but there’s so much more than that in this marvellous work.

The premise of the book is quite straightforward: in the wake of a major relationship breakdown, Laing decides to the walk the course of the river Ouse from its source to its outlet at the sea. The choice is significant, as her love of the area is so strong that her inability to leave it actually contributes to the break up with her partner. So Laing sets out on the Summer Solstice (a significant date for me, as it’s my wedding anniversary), with a backpack, some unsuitable sandals, and some oatcakes and cheese, to spend a week walking the route. Her state of mind is an emotional one, understandably, and escaping the everyday routines is cathartic (as is possibly the water itself, with its symbolic and actual action of washing clean), allowing her mind to focus on simply living in the natural world.

So we follow Laing on her journey as she traces the Ouse from an unimpressive trickle to the sea, and accompany her travels into herself, the area’s past and the strong and vivid presence of the English countryside. Although the book is rooted in Laing’s experiences and her reactions to her surroundings, it is in fact a book that works on so many levels. It’s an extended meditation on what it means to be human; how we should live our life as it is, in the here and now, as there certainly won’t be another; on life, death, our poor suffering planet and the nature of the Ouse area; and the history, both recent and ancient, which made it what it is and how it will change in times to come. Laing draws on myth, predominantly that of Thomas the Rhymer/Tam Lin, and at times in the narrative she seems to almost be straddling the boundaries between this world and some chimerical other. The book is also informed by the fascinating stories of the people who lived in and shaped the area, from Simon de Montfort to Piltdown Man – and, of course, Virginia and Leonard Woolf, whose lives are threads running through the whole book and informing the narrative.

The past is not behind us but beneath, and the ground we walk on is nothing more than a pit of bones, from which the grass unstinting grows.

Although I found the whole book compelling and brilliant, Laing’s meditations on the Woolfs were particularly illuminating, and often so moving. Laing, of course, passes the point at which Virginia’s body was found after her suicide; it was in the Ouse that she chose to take her own life, after walking out one morning and filling her pocket with stones. Laing’s understanding of Woolf is acute, and her thoughts on the latter’s work extremely enlightening. She draws out threads from Woolf’s work which come from the Sussex setting, most particularly “Between the Acts”, which was set in that landscape and, as an antidote to WW2 raging around her, searched back into the past for sustenance. Again, there are resonances in Woolf’s “Orlando”, which hops over centuries and encompasses so many changes in British history. That sense of the past recurs in the writing of both Woolf and Laing, allowing each woman perspective on her current life and rooting her into the world around her. She also wisely warns against applying hindsight to Woolf’s life and eventual fate, resisting the temptation to look for signs and portents of what was to come, which can be read into any life but aren’t necessarily the case and weren’t seen that way by the person living through that life.

…some bout of poetry after dinner, half read, half lived, as if the flesh were dissolved & through it the flowers burst red & white. (Virginia Woolf)

Inevitably, those parts of the book dealing with Virginia and Leonard were particularly moving; and I was pleased to see Laing writing about the latter, as despite the fact he sometimes gets bad press I have a warmth and a sympathy for Leonard who loved Virginia and, I feel, was often responsible for her surviving as far as she did. Some of the quotes Laing uses are amazing (and make me want to run off and read Virginia instantly); but one which fairly devastated me was a short, heartbreaking piece of writing by Leonard about still expecting to see Virginia walking across the garden towards him after her death. I confess that I blubbed.

What is this world, really? We are told we have infinite choice and yet there’s so much that occurs beyond the perimeter of our command. We do not know why we’re set down here and though we may choose the moment when we leave, not a single one of us can shift the position we’ve been assigned in time, nor bring back those we love once they have ceased to breathe.

But back to the river… The draw of water, which of course features strongly in the book, perhaps shouldn’t be surprising; after all, humans are made up of 60% of the stuff (I always thought it was 90% but apparently not…); and as an island nation we’re used to being surrounded by it and having to navigate it (well, at least since the time when it became impossible to negotiate the Channel by foot any more). Personally, I have a huge love for the sea (particularly a wild North Sea) which I put down to the fact that my maternal grandfather was a merchant seaman; his ship was one of the first merchant vessels to be sunk in WW2, and so I never knew him, but I always feel like the sea is in my blood. But I digress…

Simon Carey / River Ouse – via Wikimedia Commons

Laing brings much botanical knowledge to her travels, identifying and enjoying the wild flora and fauna that flourish in the marshy areas alongside the Ouse, connecting with the land beneath her feet and ruing the destruction left in the wake of humans carving chunks out of the countryside. She is, however, realistic enough to acknowledge that a landscape is never static and that the world is constantly changing and evolving, however slowly and invisibly to the human eye. We can just hope that our fragile planet, made up of so much water, can survive what our race is currently doing to it. The book is also something of a paean to solitude and its replenishing nature, as well as reflecting on how impossible it is to really *know* other human beings.

It struck me as curious then, the idea of a whole town of people attending to their business, a whole town of people driving cars or walking the streets, the face is only partially betraying the magic lantern show that flares utter privacy within the confines of the skull.

At the end of the book, Laing collides with the reality of civilization, having spent a happy week away from it communing with herself and nature, with an almost palpable and jarring crash; and that coming back to reality is not pleasant (at least, it wasn’t for me! )

Why does the past do this? Why does it linger instead of receding? Why does it return with such force sometimes that the real place in which one stands or sits or lies, the place in which one’s corporeal body most undeniably exists, dissolves as if it were nothing more than a mirage? The past cannot be grasped; it is not possible to return in time, to re-gather what was lost or carelessly shrugged off, so why these sudden ambushes, these flourishes of memory?

“To the River” is profound and compelling reading, and I found that once I’d embarked with Laing on her journey, I just couldn’t put the book down. Her writing is beautiful, with her evocative descriptions capturing brilliantly the atmosphere of hot English countryside, with the silence smothered by the climate and just the noise of insects. She tells her tale wonderfully, weaving together all the threads of her narrative (from ancient battles to dinosaur fossils to the aftermath of Woolf’s death) into a dazzling tapestry of a book that never fails to delight. I’ve seen Laing’s book described as Sebaldian, presumably as it mixes history and personal memoir and landscape; however, it’s a book that I think stands apart from labels and I prefer to think of it as Laingian! The success of any kind of work involving a personal narrative depends very much on your willingness to take a step into the author’s world and make a connection; I clicked with Laing straight away, happy to spend hours in her company, walking by her side and following her travels. “To the River” is a wonderful, memorable and stand out book, one which is always going to remain on my shelves and will very likely end up amongst my books of the year. Good choice, Mr. Kaggsy! 😀