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.

16 comments:

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

This sounds wonderful! I am unfamiliar with her work, and will now investigate more! Thanks so much for the introduction.

Kath said...

You're plenty eloquent enough in your review of what sounds like a wonderful book by a fascinating writer. Thanks for bringing her to my attention!

Bonnie said...

This sounds like just the kind of book I would love. Thank you for the review.

Ines said...

I don't usually read non-fiction but you got me very interested with your review.
I would very much like to be entered for a chance to read it. :)

Mystica said...

I would love to be counted in for this!

mystica123athotmaildotcom

About Last Weekend said...

HI there, nice to meet you, came through Met Mum. Jody here, a Kiwi living in Oakland used to live in London. Have got to get this book for myself and my parents. When I lived in London we twice walked the source of the Thames in Cirencester to the conclusion in London. One of those times I had a baby on my back.

Faye said...

This sounds like my perfect book. I also like to walk along rivers - great for concentrating the mind - and walked the length of the Thames Path a few years back. I'd love to be entered into the draw.

Alan said...

After a tweet by Polly Samson I read Olivia's story of dropping out and living in a field for a few months. I too like to walk along rivers and would love to be inside her head and enjoy her experience.

woolfwriter said...

As a Virginia Woolf fan who has visited the River Ouse, I think this is such an interesting topic. Thanks for posting your comment on Blogging Woolf. I will add your url there so that readers know about your book giveaway.

Bird in the Bush said...

I can't work out if this would be my worst nightmare; despite my mother's best attempts I've never been one for nature-admiring country romps and generally speaking I do anything possible to avoid any *shudder* self discovery (ignorance is bliss!?).

Yet I love honest and open non-fiction and am intrigued to read Laing's exploration of various themes, particularly her comparison of the flow of writing with that of a river...

Thank you for your beautifully crafted review and introduction to this author,

Bird x

Sarah said...

This sounds like a really interesting book from i writer i have not come across before. Thank you for the i ntroduction and please can i be entered into the draw?

Jo said...

I've read the reviews of this book but keep forgetting to get it so it would be great to get it in this draw!

ganching said...

Sounds really interesting. I love walking and rivers and introspection so sounds like my cup of tea. Would buy this for myself but unfortunately cannot spend any money at the moment due to imminent penury.

Perfumeshrine said...

You more or less "sold" me the book, as your way of describing its strong points is so fascinating to watch.
If I'm not too late, I wouldn't say no to having my name in the hat!

Dolly said...

Oh I must get this book. One of my ongoing projects is to walk from the source of the Thames to the Thames Barrier. Most of the London bits are done, many times, and I have walked from the source to Oxford at the other end. I have been thinking of doing a photo essay blog on the project one of these days. Though it will be more photos than essay, but I like to read Real Writers when they describe quests like this. Thank you for bringing it to my attention.

Rose said...

Hello to everyone who entered the competition here and on twitter- I will be drawing the winners this weekend