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 intricate flow through literature and mythology alike. To the River excavates all sorts of stories from the Ouse's marshy banks, from the brutal Barons' War of the thirteenth century to the 'Dinosaur Hunters', the nineteenth-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.
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.
* To The River is a gentle, wise and riddling book. Its prose, like the river it describes, flows intricately, unpredictably and often beautifully, carrying the fascinated reader onwards. -- Robert Macfarlane * Nature Writing is the new Rock 'n' Roll The Times * A missive filled with erudite observations of the land and water in the heady in-breath of summer... its beauty and conclusions find a critical hold in both academic and emotive axes. -- Renee Rowland The Skinny * Without wanting to sound gushing, her writing at its sublime best reminds me of Richard Mabey's nature prose and the poetry of Alice Oswald. 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 The Times * [A] beautifully written meditation on landscape and the effect on it, benign and destructive, of generations of human beings. Sunday Times * Beautifully written...A great read that will make you want to head to the Sussex countryside. Woman * A refreshing, and inspiring, real-life story ... Relive Laing's journey and you'll be inspired to get out into nature more often. Psychologies * [Laing] has written a magical book. ... It is acutely alive, observational, redolent with pithy phrases and arresting images. ... By turns lyrical, melancholic and exultant, To the River just makes you want to follow Olivia Laing all the way down to the sea. Sunday Telegraph * Wonderfully allusive...The book's subject and structure fuse pleasingly, weaving and meandering, pooling into biographical, mythical or historical backwaters. Observer * Arrestingly beautiful... This is an uplifting book, which not only develops into a work of considerable richness, but...expresses its message of hope with increasing lyricism and uncluttered simplicity. -- Juliette Nicholson Evening Standard * 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. Spectator * Gorgeous, lyrical...a gentle, wise, observant book, both sparkling and mysterious. ... Laing's writing - sometimes clear, sometimes shifting and oblique, always appropriate to the tale she's telling - is a joy. Metro * Laing is a brilliant wordsmith and this is a beautifully accomplished book. -- Frances Spalding Independent * Reading this book is like following a paper river in which one thought or allusion flows gently into another and then another. -- Kasia Boddy New Statesman * An attractive exploration, traditional and accessible and wholly original. Irish Times * To the River is a strange and riddling book, which interweaves biography, history, nature writing and memoir, driven by Laing's deep understanding of science and cultural history. It's a beautiful, lyrical work that marks the arrival of a major new writer. Outdoor Enthusiast Magazine * Although Laing is clearly very well read and the book full of historical and literary anecdotes relating to the Ouse, it is beautifully written and very readable ... Recommended for those who enjoy the work of Michael Palin and Bill Bryson and maybe even a bit of Laurie Lee, but who fancy a female (and a literary) twist. Diva Online * 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. ... There are passages of masterfully timed lyricism. -- Alexandra Harris Literary Review * ..a beguiling fusion of biography, history, nature writing and memoir. -- Chrissie Hickman Sunday Express Magazine * [It is] Laing's lyrical description of nature that makes the book shine. -- Tom Robbins Financial Times * [Laing] conveys vision and sensation with great clarift and vividness. ... 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. Times Literary Supplement * 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 racounteur can engage his dinner companions through the effortless conjunction of apparently unrelated topics. Sussex Life * A romantic, meditative and beautifully written account of Laing's journey Evening Standard * Gentle, beautifully recorded adventures Geographical * The soul-stretched honesty of this book is astonishing Geographical * Mesmerising... I read this in a single sitting and haven't paid that compliment to a book in 20 years Geographical * Masterpiece Geographical * Beyond description... tantalisingly defies us to define its genre Sussex Life * A seamless narrative Sussex Life * Profound impression of her skill as a lyrical nature writer Sussex Life * a constant delight: dreamy and lyrical, meditative and wry The Lady * an intuitive evocative interpreter of her own physical surroundings The Lady * a beautiful - and beautifully written - book, every bit as enchanting as its watery subject The Lady * interweaves biography, history, nature writing and memoir into a beautiful, lyrical book Sussex Wildlife Trust * conveys vision and sensation... with great clarity and vividness -- Laura Marcus Times Literary Supplement * words have a way with her... her delight in language is at one with her absorption in the living world -- Laura Marcus Times Literary Supplement