Review: Olivia Laing – To the River

To the River is an unusual book, combining local and literary history, a walking journal, meditations on the topic of rivers and water, and a hefty amount of biographical material about Virginia Woolf.  The author, Olivia Laing, walked the Ouse Path during a time of great personal sadness, soon after she had broken up with a long term man-friend, and something of the loneliness of this time, even a sense of personal desolation, also comes out in her writing.  Indeed, as she describes her walk down through Rodmell where Virginia Woolf drowned herself, we readers almost feel a concern that this walk may be too much for her to bear at this stage of her life (but of course, the fact that she wrote the book showed that our fears were ungrounded).

The Sussex Ouse is a short river (less than fifty miles from its rising to the sea), and it flows through a rich countryside of woods and fields before flowing down between a gap in the range of hills known as the South Downs, until it reaches the port of Newhaven.  I live in this area and walk bits of her route regularly and would say that it is on the whole a cosy landscape, containing a few pretty villages and the ancient market town of Lewes.  Although it may lack drama, the route is steeped in history and this has given Olivia Laing a considerable amount of material to enrich the account of her walk which took place over the course of seven days in September, a couple of years ago.  I could not help but be impressed by the huge list of sources at the back of her book which takes up eight pages of small print – although the walk may be short, Olivia Laing’s readers won’t be lacking information about it.

We learn about the authors personal crisis early in the book

In the spring of 2009 I became caught up in one of those crises that periodically afflict a life, when the scaffolding that maintains us seems destined to collapse. I lost a job by accident, and then through sheer carelessness, I lost the man  I loved.

Olivia “lost the knack of sleeping” and at periodical intervals throughout the day she felt that she was drowning. The idea came to her clear out her life by walking the length of the River Ouse and while reading the account of her journey, we keep coming back to that underlying sadness in little asides and remarks indicating that the clearing out was a tough job to do.

The walk commences in an area of thickets, small woods and muddy fields bounded with barbed wire fences – maybe a place fitting for Olivia’s current state of mind.  However, we are soon treated to some descriptive nature writing,

The first pipistrelles were crossing Coos Lane as I reached the water.  It was just after sunset and everything had stilled, the sky shot faintly with rose.  The reflections in the lake seemed sunk very deep.  The water pleated as the carp sank and climbed, occasionally breaking the surface to shivers.  Beneath them, the slow clouds made their way east.  At the far side of the lake the trees were reflected in sooty green and when the fish jumped there the ripples ran in white concentric circles.

Olivia launches into many passages like this and they capture the quiet stillness of much of the route, which is only disturbed by the noise of passing cars from the roads which are never too far away.  As ex-Deputy Books Editor of the Observer newspaper, Olivia Laing’s book is full of literary references.  Sometimes these seem slightly overlong (ten pages of Kenneth Grahame of Wind in the Willows fame for example) and I found myself skipping through some of these, but also realised that they are well written and do relate to the landscape she walks through.

The writing is of a style that will be bound to gain Olivia an invitation to next year’s Charleston Festival.  Apart from the considerable amount of material on Virginia and Leonard Woolf, she herself often moves into exploring the numinous aspects of her walk,

We navigate by omens such as these.  You don’t have to be a poet to be prone to apophenia, to seeking meaningful patterns in the scattered, senseless data of the everyday life.  In a certain mood, the earth itself can seem a ouija board, calling out its advice, discharging symbol after symbol, relentless and malevolent, though to ordinary eyes nothing more has happened than a single black and white bird winging down the sky.

You have to like this sort of digression to really enjoy this book for there is quite a lot of it.  I don’t mean to sound churlish, but the synergy with the whole Woolf thing is sometimes a little too laboured and as one who does not take over-much to it all, I found it a bit of a struggle not to giggle at times.  My male brain tends to see a walk as a walk, and perhaps an opportunity for some self-reflection, rather than a journey through a symbolic landscape.

Having said that, the history side of the book is excellent – Olivia Laing provides a lovely potted history of the Piltdown Man archaeological scam, a blow by blow account of the little known Battle of Lewes and a fascinating chapter on the terrible floods that came on Lewes in 2000.  It would not be fair on  the author to commend this book only for its excellent local history (which should make it an essential purchase for anyone who lives in East Sussex), when in reality this is a highly literary walking journal which adds another volume to the burgeoning Woolf-related library.

I feel sorry for making some slightly disparaging remarks about the tone of the book for it really is a very good production all round. Many people will love it and its quality is without doubt.  However when I look on my recent reviews I couldn’t help but compare this book with the travel journal of another woman writer – Susie Kelly who in her book, The Valley of Heaven and Hell managed to combine huge amounts of history with without the same high-mindedness of some of Olivia Laing’s writing.   I’ll probably give this one a five star review on Amazon, because this book does contribute a great deal to the literature of the area in which I live and despite my hesitations about its tone, its quality is beyond doubt.

7 thoughts on “Review: Olivia Laing – To the River

    • Hi Sue – yes, its very high quality really – I am being picky, but the Bloomsbury set are rather over-done round here with a flourishing cottage industry of Bloomsbury-influenced interior designers and tea-shops.


    • Hi Paarrish – well, I’m a huge fan of Sebald, with his sparse prose and his rambling diversions. Olivia Laing’s book is not really like Sebald and I’m not sure why. Hmm, must think about it


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