To the River is the story of the Ouse, the Sussex river in which Virginia Woolf drowned in 1941. One midsummer week over sixty years later, Olivia Laing walked Woolf’s river from source to sea. The result is a passionate investigation into how history resides in a landscape - and how ghosts never quite leave the places they love.
Along the way, Laing explores the roles rivers play in human lives, tracing their flow through literature and mythology alike. To the River unearths all sorts of stories from the Ouse’s marshy banks, from the brutal Barons’ War of the 13th century to the 'Dinosaur Hunters', the 19th century amateur naturalists who first cracked the fossil code. Central among these ghosts is, of course, Woolf herself: her life, her writing and her watery death.
Woolf is the most constant companion on Laing’s journey, and To the River can be read in part as a fluid, fragmentary biography of this extraordinary English writer, refracted back through the river she loved. But other writers float through these pages too – among them Iris Murdoch, Shakespeare, Homer and Kenneth Grahame. The result is a strange and riddling book, which interweaves biography, history, nature writing and memoir. It’s a beautiful, lyrical work that marks the arrival of a major new writer.
From the reviews....
"This is Laing’s first book and, without wanting to sound gushing — the watery metaphor bug is catching — her writing at its sublime best reminds me of Richard Mabey’s nature prose and the poetry of Alice Oswald (there are parallels with Oswald’s muscular verse on the River Dart). Like these two, and John Clare before them, Laing seems to lack a layer of skin, rendering her susceptible to the smallest vibrations of the natural world as well as to the frailties of the human psyche. " Jane Wheatley, Times (paywall)
"Arrestingly beautiful... Laing's passages about the beauty and precision of Woolf's prose are echoed in her own use of language for the landscape through which she travels. This is an uplifting book, which not only develops into a work of considerable richness, but as the river reaches the open sea, expresses its message of hope with increasing lyricism and uncluttered simplicity." Juliet Nicolson, Evening Standard
"Olivia Laing has written a magical book. It is acutely alive, observational, redolent with pithy phrases and arresting images... There is real delight in this debut. By turns lyrical, melancholic and exultant, To the River just makes you want to follow Olivia Laing all the way down to the sea." Philip Hoare, Sunday Telegraph
"Of Olivia Laing's prose, we could simply say that words have a way with her and that her delight in language is at one with her absorption in the living world." Laura Marcus, Times Literary Supplement (download PDF here)
"In this book Olivia Laing joins the best nature writers, becoming part of the revival begun by Richard Mabey. Laing is a brilliant wordsmith and this is a beautifully accomplished book." Frances Spalding, Independent
"The power of To the River lies in the quality of the prose, by turns lush and limpid: The river's flora and fauna, its human memories and memorials, are lovingly detailed. As Ms. Laing walks, birds turn in the air, fish mass in the waters, and thoughts of former travelers flit before her." Alice Albinia, Wall Street Journal
"The writing, at its best, is wonderfully allusive and precise... The book's subject and structure fuse pleasingly, weaving and meandering, changing pace and tone, pooling into biographical, mythical or historical backwaters before picking up the thread of Laing's riparian journey again. We find our happiness on this Earth, or not at all, and the Ouse, tricked from its course, poisoned and abstracted, flows implacably on. It's a bigger, deeper river on paper now, and we might say Laing has put it on the map; but allowed to slip free of our grid references feels truer, and more affirmative." Paul Farley, in the Observer
"A beautifully written meditation on landscape and the effect on it, benign and destructive, of generations of human beings. It is Woolf, however, who haunts the narrative. Her suicide by drowning in the Ouse in 1941 is a constant presence in the book, and Laing deftly unpicks the conflicting attitudes in the writer’s work towards rivers and the sea. For Woolf and Laing, water is at the same time enchanting and dangerous, full of the sirens who sing sailors to their doom. In this richly descriptive book, Laing succeeds superbly in delineating our often fraught, but nevertheless enduring relationship with water." Ian Critchley, in the Sunday Times (paywall)
"To the River is a gentle, wise, observant book, both sparkling and mysterious. In fluid, meditative prose that maintains a quality of heightened awareness throughout many meanderings, Laing describes not just what she sees but the parallel narratives of her inner life... Laing's writing - sometimes clear, sometimes shifting and oblique, always appropriate to the tale she's telling - is a joy. She seems haunted by the ghosts who accompany her on her solitary journey but this is not a melancholic book: Laing has a gift for conjuring the loveliness of the countryside and the creatures that inhabit it, and in her hands the changing land and riverscape are imbued with wonder and filled with stories." Tina Jackson, in Metro (download PDF here)
“The river becomes the thinnest of wire coat-hangers on which almost anything can be hung. The result is a meditation, a drifting sequence of thoughts on time and change, on loss, love and meaning, on hell and happiness, geology and evolution, science and poetry.” Adam Nicolson, Spectator
"In the same vein as the work of WG Sebald and more recently Robert Macfarlane, To The River is a beautifully written, elegant and subtle debut that surveys far more than just one river." Carl Wilkinson, Financial Times
"A quasi-confessional meditation-cum-travelogue of immense charm, personal observation and historical fact... An attractive exploration, traditional and accessible and wholly original." Eileen Battersby, Irish Times
"Olivia Laing's debut, To The River, has a Sebaldian edge to it that lifts it out of memoir and biography into something far more tantalising and suggestive." Robert McCrum, Guardian
"A lingeringly lyrical account of walking the length of the Ouse River – haunted by the shade of Virginia Woolf, who drowned herself in its waters. Olivia Laing [is] a new and thoughtful voice in the tradition of WG Sebald. I confidently expect it to be listed in this year’s favourite books." Joan Bakewell, Telegraph
"A brave, distinctive, and deeply intelligent addition to that protean genre mixing nature, history and travel writing which is becoming one of the richest forms of contemporary British literature." Alexandra Harris, Literary Review
"A haul of gems." Boyd Tonkin, Books of the Year, Independent
"To the River is a constant delight: dreamy and lyrical, meditative and wry; a fluid braid of mythology, memoir and biograph... A beautiful - and beautifully written - book, every bit as enchanting as its watery subject." Stephanie Cross, The Lady
"Refreshing and inspiring. That a physical location can help to heal, and even enhance our wellbeing, is something we all too frequently forget." Psychologies (pick of the month)
"Beautifully written... peppered with fascinating stories." Woman (pick of the week)
"I read this book in a single sitting and I haven't paid that compliment to a book in 20 years. This masterpiece is fabulously self-indulgent, but masterpieces often are." Geographical
"Laing's triumph is to have interwoven discursive, unpredictable strands into a seamless narrative holding the reader in much the same way as a skilled raconteur." Sussex Life