IoS paperback review: To the River, By Olivia Laing


To the River belongs to that happily renascent tradition of literary nature writing.

In it, Laing describes a walk along the length of the River Ouse in Sussex, interlacing her travelogue with the story of Virginia Woolf, who drowned herself there in 1941.

Though Laing’s reflections on the connection between psychology and water are illuminating, it is the quality of her descriptive prose that lingers in the mind. Comparisons with W G Sebald and Robert Macfarlane have been made, but Laing’s writing has an imagistic vividness all its own: she picks out a “single pyramidical orchid the flushed pink of a cat’s tongue”; a patch of water “scored with lines and pockmarks, as if a struggle was going on far beneath, the stays of current cleaving together and wrenching away”.