studies in travel writing

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Laing, Olivia, To the River: A Journey Beneath the Surface (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2011).

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 intricate flow through literature and mythology alike. To the River excavates all sorts of stories from the Ouse's marshy banks, from the brutal Barons' War of the thirteenth century to the 'Dinosaur Hunters', the nineteenth-century amateur naturalists who first cracked the fossil code. Central among these ghosts is, of course, Virginia 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 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, author of the riverside classic The Wind in the Willows.

The result is a wonderfully discursive read - which interweaves biography, history, nature writing and memoir, driven by Laing's deep understanding of science and cultural history. It's a beautiful, lyrical work that marks the arrival of a major new writer.


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Studies in Travel Writing (journal)
Centre for Travel Writing Studies (Nottingham Trent University)

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