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Katharine Norbury was abandoned as a baby in a Liverpool convent. Raised by loving adoptive parents, she grew into a wanderer, drawn by the landscape of the British countryside. One summer, following the miscarriage of a much-longed-for child, Katharine sets out – accompanied by her nine-year-old daughter, Evie – with the idea of following a river from the sea to its source. The luminously observed landscape provides both a constant and a context to their expeditions. But what begins as a diversion from grief soon evolves into a journey to the source of life itself, when a chance circumstance forces Katharine to the door of the woman who gave her up all those years ago.
Combining travelogue, memoir, exquisite nature writing, fragments of poetry and tales from Celtic mythology, The Fish Ladder has a rare emotional resonance. A portrait of motherhood, of a literary marriage and a hymn to the adoptive family, this captivating story of self-discovery is, most of all, an exploration of the extraordinary majesty of the natural world. Imbued with a keen and joyful intelligence, this original and life-affirming book is set to become a classic of its genre.
Katharine Norbury trained as a film editor with the BBC and has worked extensively in film and television drama. She is a graduate of the Creative Writing MA programme at UEA and a doctoral candidate at Goldsmiths. She lives in London with her family. The Fish Ladder is her first book.
"Beautiful and brave [...] A modern Greek myth"
– James Rebanks, author of The Shepherd's Life
"What a delight! The Fish Ladder is a luminous sort of book, beautifully written, darting here and there like a kingfisher over a stream. A beautiful, strange, intoxicating and utterly unique story"
– Philip Pullman
"The Fish Ladder is truly compelling. Its diverse mix of nature, travel and personal history combines to produce a moving journal of one woman's endeavours to walk from dark into light. Warm and touching, it's impact lies in its simplicity and emotional power"
– Jo Brand
"This is an unusual memoir leading from the grief of a death to the shocking discovery of a birth. The fluid narrative, with its tributaries and false trails, its reflections of dream-like memories and focus on indiscernible destinations, seems to follow the rivers along which Katharine Norbury loves to travel. She has written a magical and most original first book"
– Michael Holroyd
"The Fish Ladder is a beautiful book. An exquisite example of 'new nature writing'. The scattered fragments of pain and loss and loveliness are bound together into a coherent whole. A generous, moving book and extraordinarily well written too"
– Sara Maitland
"There is much to learn from The Fish Ladder about how the memoir can tell a story as well as be a meditation; how language can be both profound and sensuous. It's an unsentimental but extraordinary exploration of how we use narrative to understand our place in the world"
– Amit Chaudhuri
"Deeply affecting, atmospheric and sensuous, The Fish Ladder is a beautifully written meditation of what it is to be alone, of yearning for connection and of the consolations of nature"
– Polly Samson
"A beguiling amalgam of personal anecdote, travelogue and family history [...] Norbury attains a wonder-struck prose poetry"
"An examination of the consoling effect of the natural world on human grief and torment [...] The connection between water and life [...] is for Norbury a visceral [...] thing. As I turned the pages of her book, I couldn't help but think of The Tempest, and of Ariel's song: Full fathom five thy father lies"
– Rachel Cooke, Observer
"In places, Norbury's writing achieves a lovely unobtrusive merging of emotion and description, so that the landscape reveals her feelings and in doing so shares her burden"
"In tender, yearning prose, she beautifully describes her surroundings and ponders the way they replenish her sore heart and restore her sense of belonging"
– Sunday Express
"The keenness of Norbury's vision is a delight [...] Her prose is imbued with a quiet but infectious vitality [...] Despite its emotionally charged themes, there is nothing sentimental about Norbury's account: her dramatic journey is shaped by grief, illness and mental breakdown, and she writes unflinchingly and with great power about each. The result is as gripping as any fictional family saga, and few readers will fail to be moved to tears"
– The Lady, Book of the Week
"This may be another H is for Hawk, a book with a very personal narrative, beautiful writing and nature at its heart – this time with fish and a river"
– New Scientist
"Candid, subjective, and rooted in the body [...] its exploration of motherhood – particularly Norbury's relationship with Evie, and with the mother who brought her up – is achingly poignant"
– Melissa Harrison, Caught by the River