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To the River: A Journey Beneath the Surface

3.81  ·  Rating details ·  1,274 ratings  ·  182 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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Average rating 3.81  · 
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Sep 23, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: bloomsbury
This is the story of the River Ouse in Sussex and the story of a week during which Laing walked the length of the river at midsummer. This, of course is the river in which Virginia Woolf drowned herself. The walk was prompted by the end of a relationship and a general feeling that rivers gave a sense of direction to those who have "lost faith with where they're headed". The Ouse is not a long river, only 42 miles, and Laing is able to feel generally unhurried as she sets aside a week to complete ...more
Diane S ☔
Dec 17, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 5000-2019
3.5 As the holiday season approaches, I've been feeling very melancholy. This book seemed to completely reflect my mood. Walking the forty something miles from the beginning of the Ouse River, to the end, the author reflects back at what things this River has seen. Of course, the most famous, and the only one of which I was previously aware, is the suicide if Virginia Woolf. Can't get much more melancholic than that. To be honest, that was also a big draw for me. I find her writing and life fasc ...more
James Murphy
Apr 13, 2016 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
Apr 01, 2020 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
“The present never stops, no matter how weary you get. It comes as a river does, and if you aren’t careful, you’ll be swept off your feet.

3,5 stars. A lovely, meditative memoir about the history and legacy of the river Ouse in England, and a reflection on the power and inspiration of water.

In her nonfiction novels, Olivia Laing always focuses on one subject – whether it is lonely artists living in New York, or famous American authors struggling with alcoholism – and studies it through the
Oct 08, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is the story of a journey that author, Olivia Laing, took in midsummer; walking the length of the River Ouse. The journey was prompted by the break-up of a relationship and the journey prompts her to muse on many different subjects; from nature, geology, fossil hunting, history, children’s novels and, of course, Virginia Woolf, who committed suicide by drowning in the River Ouse, in 1941.

Although Woolf’s shadow lies heavily over the book, so does the history of the area. Although you do fe
(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
Callum McAllister
Oct 23, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Olivia Laing writes my favourite kind of non-fiction: part-memoir, mixed with the tools of any other genre that seem fit. I don't know how she does it to be honest. From one paragraph to the next she's talking about her own journey down the Ouse, to something Virginia or Leonard Woolf once said, to natural history, to medieval history, whatever. Also, she has writes with a real luxuriousness but also a rhythm that once you noticed it is almost quite bouncy and poetic. She's great. I want her to ...more
Nov 03, 2012 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
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 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
Apr 16, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This was so nearly a truly excellent read - I think it just needs tighter editing.
I found the constant re-referencing of topics already covered became grating. An example - one chapter might talk in depth about how Virginia Woolf did not attend school, and had a tutor for certain subjects instead, and what those subjects are, only for the next chapter to mention that Virginia Woolf did not attend school, and had a tutor for... etc etc, as if the subject had never before been broached. It makes
Oct 30, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
3.5 stars

This is the story of one midsummer week in 2011, when Olivia Laing decided to follow the river Ouse from source to sea.
"There is a mystery about rivers that draws us to them, for they rise from hidden places and travel by routes that are not always tomorrow where they might be today. Unlike a lake or a sea, a river has a destination and there is something about the certainty with which it travels that makes it very soothing, particularly for those who've lost faith with where they'
Michael Livingston
Jul 08, 2020 rated it really liked it
Beautiful nature writing interspersed with meandering local history - Laing has such remarkable range as a writer. I liked this most when it focussed on the walk itself - her descriptions of landscapes, wildlife and the interweaving of her memories of previous experiences were just wonderful. The divergences off into historical anecdotes - the Woolfs, historic battles, etc etc - occasionally meandered a bit too slowly for my tastes.
Dec 26, 2012 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
Claire Fuller
I loved this. Laing follows the river Ouse from its source to its mouth on the Sussex coast. Along the way she details the plants and the animals, the people she passes (and their verbatim conversations - which were great), and has many digressions into the history of the places she passes, including lots of information about Virginia Woolf (who drowned in the Ouse), and her husband. All of it fascinating. The only bit that dropped a little for me was the industrial mouth of the river - I found ...more
Kim Stallwood
Dec 07, 2019 rated it really liked it
If this were a film, it would be called a Road Movie but this is a book and the road is a river. The River Ouse runs some 42 miles (68 km) from its source at Horsham, West Sussex, to Seaford, East Sussex, where it meets the English Channel. Typically, the protagonist makes a trip to learn something new, resolve an outstanding matter or have an adventure. In Olivia Laing’s book, it appears to be more about recovering from the break-up of a relationship. It’s more than that, though, as the break-u ...more
Mar 11, 2015 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.
Louise Omer
Jan 24, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2018
An absolute delight.
Lady Fancifull
Apr 12, 2014 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
Lizzie Huxley-Jones
Jan 18, 2016 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
Aug 12, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
“A river passing through a landscape catches the world and gives it back redoubled: a shifting, glinting world more mysterious than the one we customarily inhabit. Rivers run through our civilisations like strings through beads, and there’s hardly an age I can think of that’s not associated with its own great waterway.”

To the River traces the Ouse from its source to the sea. Lyrical, beautiful, and packed with literary and social history, surely a must for fans of Virginia Woolf. This book also
Heather Noble
Oct 16, 2011 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.
Feb 22, 2015 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.
Nov 11, 2017 rated it it was amazing
I love Olivia Laing and she's genuinely a genius. ...more
Elsbeth Kwant
A wonderful watery book. A weeks walk beside the river Ouse, interspersed with thought on life, death and literature. Virginia Woolf, who drowned herself in the Ouse figures prominently.
Andredesleague, the primeval forest, the marshes, hedgerows, querulous wrens, trances (Nature's gift to the walker), how your body consist of electrons which cause it to be more than an invisibility, Ithaka and Iris. A fugue of meaning, fluid as a river.
Sophy H
Nov 12, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: outdoor-nature
A well written and absorbing book about the River Ouse, and its (everlasting) connection with the author Virginia Woolf.

Laing's musings veer from humorous to melancholy to fascinating to introspective as she walks the line of the Ouse over the course of a hot summer.

There is some beautiful description in here and evocative tales of sights, smells and sounds.

Paul Blaney
Feb 05, 2013 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
Michael Steger
Mar 08, 2013 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 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
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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

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