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To the River

by Olivia Laing

TO THE RIVER follows Olivia Laing’s path along the Ouse in Sussex, from its trickling source near Isfield to the dark wide mouth in Newhaven. At a bend in the stream in between lies the riverbed that carried Virginia Woolf, pockets laden with stones, downstream to her muddy death. TO THE RIVER is peopled with writers and their stories, and Laing weaves Virginia and Leonard’s streams of consciousness through Kenneth Grahame’s Thames valley and Iris Murdoch’s greenhouse pool.

It seems that landscape rewards attention and riverside writing translates into free association as Laing allows her meandering guide to digress and eke out tales of friends, lovers and childhood memories. From time to time, historical anecdotes surface like flotsam, the forged Piltdown man looms from the Sussex Downs and medieval battles ooze blood across Lewes’ grassy banks. Ever conscious of the weight of bygone days pulsing beneath her tread, Laing is forced to conclude that ‘the ground we walk on is nothing more than a pit of bones, from which the grass unstinting grows.’

But after sinking deep into the river’s history, she comes to contemplate the future of the Ouse, hoping that ‘we might pass it on, this small blue planet, cauled in water.’ TO THE RIVER is a testament to the promise of literary conservation, a memoir of a waterway and all it washed over. As Laing eulogizes the Ouse with a poetic, near Biblical, turn of phrase, her hydrophilia grows infectious and sweeps the reader up on its riddling, rambling course.

Olivia Laing is a writer and critic. TO THE RIVER was shortlisted for the 2012 Ondaatje Prize. THE TRIP TO ECHO SPRING, her second book, is published by Canongate Books Ltd in May 2013.

Eve Lacey

Published by Canongate, 284pp.


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