To The River: A Journey Beneath the Surface, by Olivia Laing, Canongate, RRP£16.99, 304 pages
When Olivia Laing lost her job “by accident” and her boyfriend “through sheer carelessness”, she found herself drawn to the River Ouse and, on mid-summer’s day 2009, set out to walk its “neither pristinely wild nor reliably tame” 42-mile length.
Why the Ouse? Although Virginia Woolf – the book’s guiding spirit – drowned here, Laing acknowledges that “such waterways are 10 a penny in these islands”. That doesn’t stop this local river providing an exemplar for all confluences that traverse the British Isles. Throughout her journey, Laing unearths fascinating scraps of history that are not only entertaining in their own right, but in each case shed light on the present. Through meandering, Laing remakes the world and in turn herself.
In the same vein as the work of WG Sebald and more recently Robert Macfarlane, To The River is a beautifully written, elegant and subtle debut that surveys far more than just one river.