Top positive review
9 people found this helpful
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.