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To the River: A Journey Beneath the Surface

3.78  ·  Rating Details ·  315 Ratings  ·  50 Reviews
To the River is the story of the Ouse, the Sussex river in which Virginia Woolf drowned in 1941. One midsummer week over sixty years later, Olivia Laing walked Woolf's river from source to sea. The result is a passionate investigation into how history resides in a landscape - and how ghosts never quite leave the places they love. Along the way, Laing explores the roles riv ...more
Hardcover, 279 pages
Published 2011 by Canongate
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James Murphy
Apr 13, 2016 James Murphy rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I'd been attracted to this book by an attraction to Laing's most recent book, The Lonely City. Since I already had To the River in hand, I thought I'd see what she's about before committing to the newer one. Turns out she's about a lot.

Laing writes about the River Ouse in Sussex in southern England. Her goal was to walk the river from its source to the Channel, her intention to show what "that little patch of England looked like one midsummer week at the beginning of the twenty-first century." T
Rebecca Foster
(2.5) Laing hadn’t yet perfected the deft interplay of memoir, biography and travel writing that makes her next two books (The Trip to Echo Spring and The Lonely City) so special. Here her ostensible subject is the River Ouse, a vague enough remit to encompass all manner of meandering talk about history, archaeology, geology, and so on. Unlike her other two books, which feel heavily urban, this one attempts nature writing. There are a few nice passages, but often her strategy is to simply list t ...more
Claire McAlpine
A relationship ends, prompting the author to plan a journey that follows the course of the river Ouse in Southern England, a river that has changed much over time, through man's battles, interventions and industrial/agricultrual practices.

As she walks the river, Olivia Laing narrates a number of those historic events, that the river now bears little trace of, including that last walk of Virginia Woolf, her pockets laden with heavy rocks as she strode into the river with purpose, her corpse emer
Oct 02, 2016 John rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
My library permits a maximum of two three-week renewals beyond the initial loan period. I've finished the book today with a few days left of the nine weeks total, which is quite rare. What does that say in this case?

I started it (way back then) with high hopes, having liked Laing's travel/biography/criticism of six American writers: The Trip to Echo Spring. This one is similar in terms of being a travel/history hybrid, but tougher for me. Lots (and lots) of flora and fauna description, so much s
Nov 03, 2012 Paul rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
There are many stories in the book, layered and interwoven, but all centred around the River Ouse that runs from Slaugham to Newhaven through the Sussex Weald. One summer Liang decides to walk the length of it to discover the history, the people that inhabit it, the wildlife and most importantly the sense of place.

This is the river where the great writer Virginia Woolf took her own life in 1941. Liang writes about her life and her troubled health and how she had been suffering from mental health
Dec 26, 2012 Manfred rated it it was amazing
I have to say, this book took me by surprise. I knew little about the plot and thought it would be a plucky tale of a girl who gets cruelly dumped and then buys her first pair of hiking boots and sets out on a path of blisters and personal discovery.

I am happy to be quite mistaken in my initial impression. This is a wonderful and meandering book, it reminded me of Jim Harrison's "travel" writing minus the self-indulgence. Virginia Woolf (who I know nothing about) and her husband are major charac
Heather Noble
Oct 16, 2011 Heather Noble rated it it was amazing
Poetic, lyrical, philosophical, this book meanders and begs the reader to linger and ponder. That's why it's taken me so long to read it, although I have been dipping in to other things. It would be lovely to read alongside a river under a shady tree on a perfect summer day.

And then there's the bibliography to peruse and savour for more books to read- just like a river flowing to a great ocean to explore.
Mar 11, 2015 Marcia rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: book-club
My favorite kind of non-fiction these days: A book of digressions formed of an interesting narrative frame hung with bits of natural, literary, and political history. I enjoyed this book immensely and am in awe of the amount of research it must have taken to make it, never mind that whole walking the length of a river thing.
Feb 22, 2015 Andy rated it really liked it
Laing's account of her walk along the length of the River Ouse in Sussex is an elegantly described, often dark, meditation on love, loss, history and literature, framed within a remembrance of, and reflection on, the final years of Virginia Woolf, who took her own life in the river in 1941.
Lady Fancifull
Apr 12, 2014 Lady Fancifull rated it really liked it
Walking the river flow

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 de
Olivia Laing decides to walk the river Ouse in Sussex from source to sea. Walking is a great way to free the mind and this book faithfully reports her thoughts as she journeys or pethaps pilgrimages along the way. Sometimes nature is in the frame, sometimes history....the Ouse saw the calamitous rout of Simon De Montfort's army... Sometimes,
....quite a lot of the time it seemed , Laing is drawn to reflect on Virginia Woolf and her life and death since she drowned herself in the Ouse in 1941. It
Paul Blaney
Feb 05, 2013 Paul Blaney rated it really liked it
Not a straightforward walking book, but a literary meditation on landscape, nature, water, and the different characters who've lived along the short course of the River Ouse in Sussex. The book mixes reflections on Virginia Woolf and Kenneth Grahame, with geology, hydrology, palaeontology and occasional thoughts on the author's unsuccessful love-life. It's a rather melancholy, or elegaic read (and a few two many flowers mentioned for this horticultural ignorant) but some lovely writing plus phil ...more
Little Hux
Jan 18, 2016 Little Hux rated it it was amazing
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. I finished the last 30 pages curled up with Winnie. 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 ...more
Ik ben geen waterrat, verre van. Maar als ik op reis ga zoek ik het water altijd op, steevast. De stad, het binnenland, de kust, en altijd weer het water. Als een rivier reist het met me mee. Een dag zonder water is een dag niet gereisd. En gek is dat niet, want mensen zoeken altijd het water op. Geen stad zonder rivier, geen park zonder vijver, geen strand zonder zee. Zonder meer reis ik niet.

Is het de rust? De open ruimte? De lucht, de wind? Het kabbelen van het water misschien?

'Naar de rivi
Michael Steger
Mar 08, 2013 Michael Steger rated it it was amazing
'Outside the Downs had disappeared, obliterated by a swelling wall of thunderheads. The cloud was growing as I watched, banking up into headwalls and cornices and deep ice-blue gullies. It looked like the aftermath of an explosion, like the world beyond the hills had been bombed to smithereens. But that's how we go, is it not, between nothing and nothing, along this strip of life, where the ragworts nod in the repeating breeze? Like a little strip of pavement above an abyss, Virginia Woolf once ...more
Kate Mathieson
Nov 01, 2015 Kate Mathieson rated it it was amazing
When the city fatigues you, when everything is loud and noisy and the humdrum of life nags - take yourself with Olivia - to the river. A soulful journey, a tale of hope, and loss, a mirrored journey as Olivia unpacks the history of the river, the history of Virginia Woolf, and her own life threaded through it.

The writing is sublime, I felt each page took me to the river, where I was bathing in a cold river, seeping out the day, and I would always emerge feeling refreshed. Laing reminds you to lo
Jun 11, 2011 Kim rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: woolf, natuur
nogmaals, het boek is niet perfect maar het past nu even perfect in mijn leven. soms lees je een boek op een moment in je leven en krijg je er zoveel energie van, terwijl het een week eerder, of later, misschien niet had gepast. ofzo.

don't get me wrong: het is een boeiend boek. de Ouse, de rivier waarin Virginia Woolf verdween, is waar Olivia Laing over schrijft. en daar komt bij kijken: geologie, geschiedenis, Virginia Woolf, Leonard Woolf. bomen, kruiden, vogels, bijen.

je moet er van houden -
Sep 30, 2014 Anne rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I was so excited to read this book and ultimately was so bored I stopped 3/4 of the way through. I found it most engaging when she wrote about events of the past that happened around the Ouse... But then we'd end up back with the main protagonist, whose story was still not explained most of the way through. Because no context was provided for her journey or why we should care, her personal observations felt irrelevant and quite literally made me fall asleep.

The idea of the book was quite poetic
Apr 19, 2016 Sylvie rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-in-2016
Het verhaal van een wandeling langs de Ouse (Sussex) rond midzomernacht. Over Virginia en Leonard Woolf, Iris Murdoch, ... prachtige beschrijving van landschap, fauna en flora. Veel zinnen om in te kaderen, zo poëtisch. Interessante historische en folkloristische weetjes maar zo nu en dan een weetje te veel om het non-stop boeiend te houden. Deed me wel zin krijgen om nog eens te voet de Downs in te trekken. En doet verlangen naar de langste dagen!
Maxwell Cooter
Jan 15, 2015 Maxwell Cooter rated it liked it
As a local resident, I was keen to read this and here are some really interesting passages but like the river itself, it does meander a bit.

Laing can certainly write, there are sections of great beauty and I loved the botanical notes, she's clearly a keen observer but there's a little too much Woolf and certainly a bit too much of her failed love affair: the whole effect is a bit like having a first date with someone who seems very interesting but spends the evening talking about her ex
Mar 16, 2016 Mira rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Reading To The River was a bit like stepping into a dream. I was transported to the balmy summers of my childhood utterly entranced by the storytelling that meandered alongside the flow of the river submerging me into a meditative state of bliss.

A shot of pure unadulterated sunshine and love straight to the heart.

I loved it! Olivia Laing walked down the length of the River Ouse, wherein Virginia Woolf drowned herself. This is not a gloomy book: it explores literary history, history-history, personal history, and a little philosophy, with a great deal of beautifully lyrical, precisely observant nature writing.
Jul 05, 2013 Britt rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
"Rivieren worden omgeven door een mysterie dat ons aantrekt, want ze wellen op uit verborgen plekken en volgen vandaag routes die er morgen niet altijd meer zullen zijn. Een rivier heeft, anders dan een meer of de zee, een bestemming en de zekerheid waarmee ze zich een weg baant geeft haar iets troostrijks, zeker voor hen die het vertrouwen in waar ze zelf heen willen zijn kwijtgeraakt."
Dead John Williams
May 30, 2015 Dead John Williams rated it really liked it
Shelves: reviewed
Virginia Woolf put stones in her pockets and walked into the river. This is the same river that Olivia Lang is walking along. As she does so she tells the stories of the river.

If there is a book that appeals to the woman in you this is it, poetic, erudite and simply amazing.
Jack Bates
Dec 13, 2015 Jack Bates rated it really liked it
I enjoyed this, I really like Olivia's style, she writes beautifully. And I like Virginia Woolf and rivers, what's not to like.

I know her mum, so that's why I bought it in the first place.
David Kirchman
Jan 06, 2015 David Kirchman rated it really liked it
Beautifully written, contemplative about nature and author's self.
May 16, 2013 Bettie☯ marked it as maybe
Spotted on Overbylass's update.
To find
Joel Davie
Mar 09, 2017 Joel Davie rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I'm not generally a fan of straight Nature writing, but Olivia Laing has a way here of writing about nature and making it about everything, while never descending into mysticism or wooliness. I picked this up because I was interested in her other two books - one on writers and their alcoholism, one on the loneliness of the city. Laing proves what should be obvious but is sometimes lost in favour of what we think our preferences are: that a good writer can write about anything and make it glow, m ...more
Annie Jones
Jan 22, 2017 Annie Jones rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is a beautifully written book, worth reading for the quality of the prose and the writer's sensitivity to the natural world. Her sense of the strength and fragility of the planet conveys itself, and her hope that "we might pass it on, this small blue planet, cauled in water" (p. 184) seems even more forlorn and poignant now, two days after the inauguration of President Trump, than when she wrote those words.
Annie Cholewa
Jan 25, 2017 Annie Cholewa rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: kindle, life-writing
As the more than three months between start and finish dates suggest my relationship with To the River has been far from monogamous. But it's such a rich plum-pudding of a book that taking small bites proved necessary to prevent indigestion.
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Olivia Laing is a writer and critic. Her first book, To the River (2011) is the story of a midsummer journey down the river Virginia Woolf drowned in. It was a book of the year in the Evening Standard, Independent and Financial Times and was shortlisted for the 2012 Ondaatje Prize and the Dolman Travel Book of the Year.

Her second, The Trip to Echo Spring (2013), explores the liquid links between w
More about Olivia Laing...

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“It began to occur to me that the whole story of love might be nothing more than a wicked lie; that simply sleeping beside another body night after night gives no express right of entry to the interior world of their thoughts or dreams;that we are separate in the end whatever contrary illusions we may cherish; and that this miserable truth might as well be faced, since it will be dinned into one, like it or not by the failings of those we hold dear. I wasn't so bitter now. I'd begun to emerge into a sense of satisfaction with my not, but it would be a long time before I trusted someone, for I'd seen how essentially unknowable even the best loved might prove to be.” 6 likes
“There is no possibility of permanent tenancy on this circling planet. It isn’t part of the deal.” 3 likes
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