Review: To The River

“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 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’re headed.”

Heraclitus remarked that we never step into the same river twice — but do we? Are the rivers we step into not the same rivers that roaming individuals and animals before us waded through? Are these not the same currents that have tragically swallowed the lives of people who have been unfortunate enough to encounter its wrath?

To The River is Olivia Laing’s documentation of her 42-mile journey taken on foot. She follows River Ouse that rises near Haywards Heath and subsequently empties into the Channel at Newhaven. As Laing embarks on this journey, moments spent in solitude and quiet contemplation tempt open the floodgates of history — of England, the world, and of her own. Laing delves deep into her thoughts on significant moments connected to the River that have shaped the world. She also confronts her own past, loss, and layers of grief with brutal yet courageous honesty.

This is the very river that the legendary author Virginia Woolf drowned herself in years ago as she wrestled with depression and despair. This is the same river that John Bunyan (author of Pilgrim’s Progress) was baptised in 1653, and the river that stood witness to one of the bloodiest sieges recorded in history — that Bedford Castle in the early 13th century.

Rivers have always been a metaphor for life, death and renewal. Their waters flow determinedly and decidedly, stopping for no man nor woman. Not even life itself. Despite exhibiting a rush of relative serenity on the surface, rivers are distinguishable landmarks that remind us of the ghosts of the past that linger within the ebb and flow of the currents beneath.

Spurred by an insatiable wanderlust many of us find familiarity in, To The River is Olivia Laing’s head-on confrontation with both the forces of nature and with the past in all its various forms. At its heart, it is a thrilling revelation of hope, life, and healing that can be found in the history we carry on our backs that shines through even through the darkest moments of despair and aimlessness.

 


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