To the River by Olivia  Laing
(Canongate, 2011)

To the River

by Olivia Laing

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 rivers play in human lives, tracing their flow through literature and mythology alike. To the River unearths all sorts of stories from the Ouse’s marshy banks, from the brutal Barons’ War of the 13th century to the ‘Dinosaur Hunters’, the 19th century amateur naturalists who first cracked the fossil code. Central among these ghosts is, of course, Woolf herself: her life, her writing and her watery death.

Woolf is the most constant companion on Laing’s journey, and To the River can be read in part as a fluid, fragmentary biography of this extraordinary English writer, refracted back through the river she loved. But other writers float through these pages too – among them Iris Murdoch, Shakespeare, Homer and Kenneth Grahame. The result is a strange and riddling book, which interweaves biography, history, nature writing and memoir. It’s a beautiful, lyrical work that marks the arrival of a major new writer.


  • 2012 The Ondaatje Prize (Shorlisted)


Olivia Laing has written a magical book... By turns lyrical, melancholic and exultant, To the River just makes you want to follow Olivia Laing all the way down to the sea. ”
- Philip Hoare, The Sunday Telegraph
In this book Olivia Laing joins the best nature writers, becoming part of the revival begun by Richard Mabey. Laing is a brilliant wordsmith and this is a beautifully accomplished book. ”
- Frances Spalding, The Independent
Arrestingly beautiful... This is an uplifting book, which expresses its message of hope with increasing lyricism and uncluttered simplicity. ”
- Juliet Nicolson, The Evening Standard
To the River is a constant delight: dreamy and lyrical, meditative and wry; a fluid braid of mythology, memoir and biograph... A beautiful - and beautifully written - book, every bit as enchanting as its watery subject. ”
- The Lady
In the same vein as the work of WG Sebald and more recently Robert Macfarlane, To The River is a beautifully written, elegant and subtle debut that surveys far more than just one river. ”
- The Financial Times
A beautifully written meditation on landscape and the effect on it, benign and destructive, of generations of human beings. ”
- The Sunday Times
A haul of gems.”
- Boyd Tonkin, Books of the Year, The Independent
A brave, distinctive, and deeply intelligent addition to that protean genre mixing nature, history and travel writing which is becoming one of the richest forms of contemporary British literature.”
- Alexandra Harris, Literary Review