To the River: A Journey Beneath the Surface (Paperback)

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Staff Reviews

This is a wonderful book about place, and how it’s history can shape it, as well as us. Laing follows the history of the River Ouse as it meanders through the county of Sussex, and the people that witnessed it. We spend a lot of time with Virginia Woolf and how she was drawn to the river in life, and also, how she used it in her death. But the historical figures, and authors specifically, that Laing references are many, and I loved dipping into the aspects of their lives through the river. A beautifully lyrical ode to one of the natural features of the earth that we live our lives parallel too, and a reminder of how much they influence us.

Becky Doherty


A beautiful, lyrical book tells the tale of the river in which Virginia Woolf drowned, and heralds the arrival of a major new voice in nature writing

One midsummer week more than 60 years after Virginia Woolf drowned in the Ouse in 1941, Olivia Laing walked that same Sussex 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 intricate flow through literature and mythology alike. She excavates 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, Virginia Woolf herself: her life, her writing, and her watery death. Woolf is the most constant companion on Laing's journey, and this book can be read in part as a 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, author of the riverside classic The Wind in the Willows. The result is a wonderfully discursive read, interweaving biography, history, nature writing, and memoir, and driven by Laing's deep understanding of science and cultural history.

About the Author

Olivia Laing lives in Brighton. Between 2007 and 2009, she was the Observer's Deputy Books Editor. She writes and reviews widely, for the Observer, the New Statesman, the TLS and the Guardian among other publications. She has a first class BSc (Hons) in herbal medicine, and practised as a medical herbalist for several years before becoming a journalist, specialising in the treatment of anxiety and depression. Olivia Laing has been awarded a MacDowell Fellowship and grants from the Arts Council and Author's Foundation to work on her second book, which will be published by Canongate in 2013.

Product Details
ISBN: 9781847677938
ISBN-10: 1847677932
Publisher: Canongate Books
Publication Date: April 5th, 2012
Pages: 304
Language: English
Series: Canons