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Customer reviews

4.5 out of 5 stars
4.5 out of 5 stars

on 25 February 2012
I'm not sure how interesting To The River would be for someone who didn't live along the River Ouse and have an interest in local history, but I do and have, so I count myself very fortunate that Olivia Laing has written it.
It's beautifully written, with just the right mix of history, geography and personal story. She moves along the river at a decent clip, not dwelling on each and every bend - not least because large parts of it are inaccessible, sadly - but making small details of her trip, such as what she eats and where she stays, interesting somehow. The descriptions all seem completely accurate too. I'm grateful that even though she's a herbalist, she resisted the temptation to list every single plant she meets along the way (though I would have liked more about the what's IN the river).

The best bits, for me, are the historical diversions. For example, bringing to life the Battle of Lewes - I now walk through the local twittens thinking about the terrified soldiers being pursued through them by De Montfort's knights. The Piltdown hoax, Kenneth Grahame, the churches, the ancient lime forest, the grissly details of Virginia Woolf's suicide, etc and so on, are never allowed to get boring. Vignettes like Leonard Woolf hearing about the start of WW1 while swimming at the Tide Mills, are just wonderful, for a local.
The only off notes are a slight feeling that she finds other people - especially men and children? - irritating. And is Newhaven really that bad? Seems a bit shallow to criticise its little streets and council houses so harshly: they're full of people priced out of the villages by people like Virginia Woolf... It's the kind of snobbery that puts me off reading Virginia Woolf. But maybe I'm being over sensitive.

It's a great book - shame that everyone doesn't get their environment written about as well as Olivia Laing has described mine.
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on 21 May 2014
This was our book club choice and I was not expecting to love it ! I didn't love it but enjoyed the gentle amble down the river Ouse
and most of the stories of the famous authors were really fascinating. I learned a lot. But, for me there was too much rich description
and I got rather lost in the authors imagination.
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on 8 December 2014
A wonderful journey in prose and visions.
I loved every aspect of this book and have already purchased her next.
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TOP 100 REVIEWERon 1 September 2016
In the spring of 2009, Olivia Laing became caught up in one of those minor crises that make one take a stock of one's life: she lost her job and also the man she loved. As the spring turned to summer "the shift in season was intoxicating" she tells us "and it was then that the idea of walking the river locked hold of me." Having always been haunted by waters, and finding a mystery about rivers which draws her to them, Ms Laing's waterway of choice was the Ouse in Sussex, the river near to Virginia Woolf's home, Monk's House, and the river in which Woolf drowned herself after filling her pockets with heavy stones and wading into the water - the tragedy of which resonates with Olivia Laing and haunts the narrative of her book.

And so, in the middle of June, in her quest to "somehow get beneath the surface of the daily world", Ms Laing packed a rucksack with layers of clothes and maps and set out to walk from the source of the Ouse to the sea, staying in B&Bs and public houses along the way. The result of her journey, and of the thoughts she experienced whilst making that journey, is this wonderfully lyrical account of the countryside, interspersed with snippets of information about Virginia Woolf (and I was pleased at the author's mention of Woolf's diaries which, as Ms Laing comments, show that Virginia had an infectious love for the natural world) and scattered throughout its pages with an intriguing selection of literary digressions and meanderings. A richly descriptive and beautifully written book and a thoughtful meditation on landscape, on nature and on being alive.

4 Stars.
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on 5 July 2011
I suspect that this book will eventually garner a one star review. It will probably be along the lines that the book did not provide enough factual information about the River Ouse in Sussex. This would be a pity. The book is beautifully written and the descriptions of the river - its landscapes, birds and plantlife - are superb; there's a real sense of being out and about in the countryside on a hot summer's day. I particularly liked the author's account of the 'average residence time of a single water molecule' in a river of the Ouse's size, which is factually interesting and also provides a nice modern take on the classical idea that one cannot put one's foot in the same river twice. The biographical material about Virginia Woolf and the more conventional, in local history terms, account of the lower Ouse valley were both excellent.

A doubt about the book remains, though. Tim Robinson comments in 'Connemara - Listening to the Wind' that 'It's a difficulty for the topographical writer...that places have accidental connections as well as essential features'. The journey recounted in the book is in part prompted by a failed relationship. That it not dwelt on extensively, and only occasionally does one get the sense of Laing's feelings of sadness and loss. Essentially it's a topographical book and I sometimes wondered whether in certain respects it did not deal sufficiently with the 'essential features'. It was as if the Ouse, its history and landscapes, were not enough to sustain her narrative, and what sometimes seems like peripheral material is introduced. It's interesting, in this regard, to compare the book with Philip Hoare's 'Spike Island' and, going much further back, Geoffrey Grigson's 'Freedom of the Parish', which seem more rooted in the places they describe.

Still, there's more than one kind of book, and I enjoyed the journey and liked the narrator. Indeed, some passages I enjoyed so much that I immediately reread them, and I am sure I will dip into it again from time to time in the years to come. You can't expect much more from a book.
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I thoroughly believe that some books have to be read in certain places, and I desperately wanted to read To The River by the water, with a flask of coffee. However it's been below 0 on and off this week so much was read in the bath, or in bed listening to watery themed music.

To The River is Laing's first book, a travel memoir of her walking the Ouse in Sussex, interspersed with the history of the river and its residents, particularly Virginia and Leonard Woolf. It is a gentle, beautiful work of non fiction, brimming with rich descriptions of the local wildlife and the history of Sussex. I consider it essential for any other Woolf fans out there, and for any lovers of nature writing.
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on 28 May 2011
I love this book.I have read Roger Deakin and this book,the first by Olivia Laing,is up there with the best of them.The pictures she paints of her walk,the people and places become alive, they live in your imagnation .A few lines but I think anyone who picks this book will not be diappointed .I find it hard to read quickly as I am very dyslexic so its hard for me to find books that I do not want to put down,but this is one such book
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on 7 October 2013
I was looking forward to reading this book, based on the good reviews, some of which bracketed Olivia Laing with Roger Deakin and Robert Macfarlane, two authors I rate highly. I found To The River slightly flat. The anticipated mixture of local history, the life story of Virginia Woolf, and descriptions of local scenery were all there, but didn't quite gel for me, and I enjoyed the researched, historic elements more than the account of the walk itself. This may partly be because the author made the trip at an unhappy point in her life, and succeeded in bringing her discontent into her text, in which case I suppose my not enjoying her walk very much is a tribute to her writing skills. However, I never got a vivid feeling of place, as I do with, say, Cider with Rosie. At times it was as if the author was trying too hard to be Literary with a capital L.

For example, she describes 'flowering blackberry and the last few racemes of elderflower'. Raceme is a botanical term which denotes a string of flowers hanging on stalks off a central stalk. The flowers of elder are not like that. Instead, many tiny individual flowers are held in flat plates. If you wanted to use a botanical term you would call it an umbel, but why not just say flat plate? Or some more lyrical phrase, but one that conveys what an elderflower actually looks like. I don't condemn the book on the basis of one small slip-up in a plant description, but it jarred.

Shortly after reading this I read Tom Fort's A303: Highway to the Sun. The choice of cover art tells you that is not pitched as a Literary book, and is probably aimed at readers who also liked books by Stuart Maconie. It covers similar territory to To The River, an eclectic mixture of landscape description, history, and reminiscences of fishing trips. The prose style is far more colloquial, and I found myself enjoying it much more, and reading snippets out loud to my partner.

When I started this review I was inclined to bow to consensus and give To the River four stars, but in the end it only got three because it failed the test of Would you recommend this to a friend. I have bought and given as presents multiple copies of Waterlog and Michael Pollan's Second Nature, but I won't be giving anybody a copy of To The River.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICEon 24 June 2011
To the River is an unusual book, combining local and literary history, a walking journal, meditations on the topic of rivers and water, and a hefty amount of biographical material about Virginia Woolf. The author, Olivia Laing, walked the Ouse Path during a time of great personal sadness, soon after she had broken up with a long term man-friend, and something of the loneliness of this time, even a sense of personal desolation, also comes out in her writing.

The Sussex Ouse is a short river (less than fifty miles from its rising to the sea), and it flows through a rich countryside of woods and fields before flowing down between a gap in the range of hills known as the South Downs, until it reaches the port of Newhaven. Although it may lack drama, the route is steeped in history and this has given Olivia Laing a considerable amount of material to enrich the account of her walk which took place over the course of seven days in September, a couple of years ago. I could not help but be impressed by the huge list of sources at the back of her book which takes up eight pages of small print - although the walk may be short, Olivia Laing's readers won't be lacking information about it.

The authors launches into many passages which capture the quiet stillness of much of the route, which is only disturbed by the noise of passing cars from the roads which are never too far away. As ex-Deputy Books Editor of the Observer newspaper, Olivia Laing's book is full of literary references. Sometimes these seem slightly over-long (ten pages of Kenneth Grahame of Wind in the Willows fame for example) and I found myself skipping through some of these, but also realised that they are well written and do relate to the landscape she walks through.

The history side of the book is excellent - Olivia Laing provides a lovely potted history of the Piltdown Man archaeological scam, a blow by blow account of the little known Battle of Lewes and a fascinating chapter on the terrible floods that came on Lewes in 2000. It would not be fair on the author to commend this book only for its excellent local history (which should make it an essential purchase for anyone who lives in East Sussex), when in reality this is a highly literary walking journal which adds another volume to the burgeoning Woolf-related library.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 9 April 2014
Just as some people have perfect pitch, which they can then learn to tune even more finely, and some have eyes which are attuned to see ever finer gradations of tone, colour and shade, and can then further train and refine this gift, some, I believe, resonate with a precision and refinement towards words, language itself, and are capable of conceptualising and describing the world new-minted, fresh, present.

Such a one is Olivia Laing, as this marvellous book effortlessly demonstrates. When I say `effortlessly' I don't mean that its construction necessarily came trippingly and fully formed for the writer - maybe it did, I don't know - but that the reader has no sense of affect being striven for, no sense of `my, what beautiful writing in terms of showy flashness in description. It isn't that I read with a sense of `what a beautiful description of a sunset' - more, I read without effort, slowly, presently, observantly. Sentence followed sentence, and both the parts and the whole just WERE. This is authentic writing, and from first to last I just had the sense, which might often come with music which is balanced, and somehow winds the listener more deeply into itself, that `this is the moment; and this; and this'

Laing has written a walking journey the length of the River Ouse, which effortlessly weaves the long history of the planet, of geological time and evolution, with recorded historical fact, with the industry of place, with social history - and with the short lives of individuals, and how they connect to place. She renders all fascination, and the powerful presence of her writing had me reading with a kind of breathlessness, heart and lungs almost afraid to move on, so much did I want to ingest and inhabit each step of the journey, each sentence of the book.

Presiding over all, for Laing, and moving through the feel of the book, is Virginia Woolf, who, as we know, on a day in 1941 walked out into the Ouse with a pocket full of stones. Woolf was a woman perhaps too finely calibrated for the world, sharing with some other writers with an exquisite sensitivity to the natural world, a feeling too attuned to unsheathed nerve endings, unmyelinated. But what such writers can do is perhaps to waken and unwrap those of us who are too tightly sheathed AGAINST perception.

Laing solidly walks the journey, feet well on the ground, noticing, noticing.

I could have taken virtually any and every sentence from her book to illustrate the harmony, perception, reflection of her writing. I did start underlining, but quickly abandoned, as the book itself needs underlining

"The path spilled on down a long lion-coloured meadow into a valley lined with ashes. There the river ran in riffles over the gravel beds that the sea trout need to breed. I crossed it at Hammerhill Bridge, running milky in the sun, and climbed east again into Hammerhill Copse.The land had lain opento the morning and now it seemed to close up like a clam. There was a woman's coat hanging over the gate to the wood, the chain padlocked about it like a belt. Who drops a coat in a wood? The label had been cut out, and the pink satin lining was stippled by mould"

Reading this book, I feel invited, constantly by the writer, to both inhabit the presence of the time and place of her journey, and, in an echo of Robert Frost's poem, stay aware of the other paths and possibilities that might have been taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveller, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other,
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