Somehow it took me months and months to read To The River (2011) by Olivia Laing, having it on the go alongside lots of other books I was reading – and yet it is likely to be on my best books of the year. I think I was enjoying it so much, and realising what an unusually perfect book for me it was, that I didn’t want to read any of it unless I was in exactly the right mood.
I discovered that To The River existed when reading reviews of The Shelf, I think (just in case you’ve missed how much I loved Phyllis Rose’s book, have yourself a merry little read of this) – I quickly ordered a copy, but waited until it felt like the right time to read it. Why was I so excited about it? Well, I have two words: Virginia. Woolf.
To The River plays on the title To The Lighthouse, and it’s inspired by Virginia Woolf – at least partly. The loose structure of the memoir (for such I suppose it is) is that Laing is walking the length of the Ouse – the river in which Woolf drowned herself in 1941, but also (unsurprisingly) one which has a long and varied history before that. Laing mixes the personal and the investigative as she walks along this route – an area she knows fairly well already, but with plenty left to explore and unearth… and all while Woolf comes in and out of the narrative, always a reference point, if not quite the subject of the book.
I am haunted by waters. It may be that I’m too dry in myself, too English, or it may be simply that I’m susceptible to beauty, but I do not feel truly at ease on this earth unless there’s a river nearby. “When it hurts,” wrote the Polish poet Czeslaw Miłosz, “we return to the banks of certain rivers,” and I take comfort in his words, for there’s a river I’ve returned to over and again, in sickness and in health, in grief, in desolation and in joy.
I’ve kinda already spoiled which river that is (mea culpa) – and it was a form of grief that took Laing there this time: the break-up of a relationship, which she mentions throughout the book (though not in an Eat, Pray, Love sort of way – more as a series of memories threaded throughout). (FYI, I haven’t read Eat, Pray, Love and have no idea what it’s really like.)
Like Laing, I am very fond of rivers. I grew up in a village called Eckington, in Worcestershire, which is in a bend of the River Avon. That meant that it flooded every year, and two of the three roads that led out of the village would generally be impassable, but it also gave me a lifelong love of rivers – you could walk all the way around the village by river, or you could stroll down to one of the two locks. You could even follow the river for miles in either direction, if you so chose. And in Oxford I have usually lived relatively close to a river – it’s five minutes’ walk from my house now – and it’s where I instinctively go when I’m sad. This week, in fact, I was pretty miserable for a couple of days – and, in the first burst of it, I went and stood by the river, staring into it. Not in a Virginia-Woolf-throw-myself-in, I should add, but because I find rivers calming and beautiful, and somehow reassuringly constant.
Anyway, Laing walks along the river – or as near as she can get to it; a lot of the riverbank is privately owned – and it’s greatly enjoyable just to read about the places she stays, the people she bumps into, and her reflections on her surroundings. I love reading all this sort of thing:
I walked back through fields of sleeping cows as the dusk fell down about me. I was staying that night in an old farmhouse near Isfield church, in a room at the end of a long corridor separated from the rest of the house by a velvet curtain. It smelled smoky and sweet, as if apple wood or cherry had been burning for generations. I’d been lent a torch when I went out, and now, tiptoeing back in, I was given a flask of hot milk and a homemade truffle to take up to bed. It was nice to be coddled. I wrapped the duvet round me and ate my feast while flicking through a book I’d found hidden beneath a stack of Country Life.
But To The River is much more than a travel diary: along the way, Laing discusses all manner of things that happened near her route, or which she is reminded of. And I mean ‘all manner of things’. There is a brief history of the discovery of dinosaurs and the rivalries it entailed; the life of Simon de Montfort; Piltdown man; folklore about dancing nymphs – it’s really all there. And, weaving in and out of all of them: Virginia Woolf. The places she visited, the inspiration she gathered for her novels, and the way she would have experienced the area. To be truthful, I would have loved a bit more about Woolf and about Laing’s history of reading her books – but I can’t fault the exemplary way that Laing brings together all the disparate histories she discusses with the trip she is taking. It’s quite extraordinary. It somehow doesn’t feel disjointed at all – as each thought comes to the surface, naturally, she gives a brief and engaging summary of the topic. It’s conversational and (here comes the river metaphor) flowing.
It was a pleasure to spend time in To The River. Such an unusual premise for a book makes me applaud the good people of Canongate for being willing to publish it – and wonder what other books of this ilk might be out there. Thank you, Olivia Laing, for taking this trip – for being both a brilliant researcher and a vulnerable self-analyser, and for bringing the two elements together so beautifully.