Monday, 16 May 2011
Book Review and Competition: To the River by Olivia Laing
I have long admired Olivia Laing's writing, at a time when I was rediscovering the solace of books and words it was some of her work that resonated most. So I was genuinely excited to hear that she had written a book and that it was to be non- fiction.
To the River is Laing's account of her journey from the source to the end of River Ouse in Sussex. One Spring she decided to pack her bag and walk the miles of the river's banks. The journey and Laing's emotions along the way are described in almost forensic detail. She is a writer who isn't afraid of exposing herself completely for better or worse, her every dark thought or moment of doubt is available to the reader. She doesn't dress her writing for posterity and she includes the ugliness of a discarded McDonald's in a field, or a half heard car park conversation, giving them as much importance in her journey as the beautiful hedgerows and waters she passes by.
The Ouse is perhaps most famously the water that Virginia Woolf drowned herself in and Laing uses Woolf's story to introduce the theme of the relationship between writers and rivers which she then expands on; she is of course writing in the very tradition she is studying which gives the book an extra aspect, an awareness of itself I suppose. The author is also a trained medical herbalist and her seemingly extensive knowledge of plants and nature works alongside the lyrical side of her writing to ground it and give it the depth that a scientific eye can give to artistic work.
In short this book is part diary, part literary criticism, part nature walk, part gritty modern tale, part ecological warning, part history book. Altogether I found it sublime, it's a charming and enjoyable to read, though weighty and at times profoundly sad also. Laing is so lucky to be able to write virtually anything and everything she wants to and to be able to tie themes together as if they were born to sit side by side. To the River is the best thing I've read this year and I know it is a book I will read again and again.
More eloquent or esteemed writers than I have reviewed To the River here and here.
I have three copies of this really wonderful book to give away in a competition. To enter the drawer please leave a comment below or tweet me @arosebtt. I will leave the competition open until the 4th of June. Good luck!
You can listen to an interview with Olivia (and a really fascinating tour of Virginia and Leonard Woolf's house in Sussex on Woman's Hour here.
PS you can order a copy of the book here if you can't wait for the competition.