A non-partisan journal of the left.

To the river...

Sun 23rd Oct 2011

A story of a river does not seem like the most captivating idea for a book but in ‘To the River’, Olivia Laing carries off the feat of writing a hypnotising book about the River Ouse.

Laing follows the path of the river starting near Haywards Heath on the Solstice to the river’s end by Tide Mills. It is an area, and river, I know well and prior to reading the book I felt smug I knew all there was to know. I was proved wrong.

The pace of the book is languid, not boring, interweaving history, geology, a personal narrative and touches on the stories – particularly that of Viriginia Woolf – that have shaped the literary and topology of the landscape of Laing’s path.

“I am haunted by waters,” she declares at the outset, a self-confessed obsessive hydrophiliac - a condition she shares with Woolf who died after deliberately walking into the river at Rodmell weighed down with stones, but with whom she seems to share her journey.

Her path is littered with memories of a past relationship which she berates herself for taking time to note, the presence of her former boyfriend emerges from the very beginning with a ‘forbidden’ phone call to him. The next day her journey begins.

As Laing starts her journey we hear about the life of Gideon Mantell, a life which earned the Obstetrician the title of palaeontologist. Her voyage takes us through the sometimes gruesome details of the Battle of Lewes - on her journey Laing sees the Hastings train passing over the compacted bones of the men who fought in that battle in 1264. Laing notes that Mantell himself wrote to the Sussex Express, venting his disgust at the manner in which the bones had been used.

We hear about the destructive powers of the River - the flood of 2000, in which the waters affected more than 1,000 homes in Lewes and Uckfield, causing people to be evacuated from their houses. To this date work continues to be done on the county town’s flood defences.

However the book, at points, has some almost novel like qualities: the dreaminess of the vista, the river and the sky, the feeling of contentedness (and at one point wariness). Laing seems to relish the solitude and time for reflection, as the river meanders towards the sea so does the book, taking the reader all the way down the river it.

Laing’s training as a medical herbalist is clear as she identifies all sorts of fauna along her route (from which she veers at times) and at the steps of Lewes Castle she finds a “walled garden full of pink and white Valerian, the sleep-inducing herb that the Saxons called All-Heal” A hedgerow resembles "a botanist's sweetshop", offering "beetroot-pink hedge woundwort, meadowsweet and the silver-leaved tormentil that can both “stem the flow of blood and dye leather red".

In the book Laing brings to life Virginia Woolf and her touching relationship with her brother, Woolf’s devotion to Greek, her various breakdowns, her love of the river and, lastly, her watery death. Laing’s understanding of this outstanding literary figure is seen through the context of the Ouse, but there is also a moving portrayal of Leonard, Viriginia’s husband, a figure often forgotten. The relationship is compared to that of Iris Murdoch and John Bayley, and, of course, therein lies another literary connection connected to water, Iris being the author of ‘The Sea’.

It is a wonderfully written book that evokes the Sussex countryside and will make you want to visit. Even if you don’t, after reading it you’ll be dreaming of it. Laing’s book is an uplifting one crammed full of observation, richness and lyricism. Superb.

Canongate. ISBN 1847677924
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