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 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, author of the riverside classic The Wind in the Willows.
Olivia Laing is a writer and editor. Between 2007 and 2009, she was the Observer's Deputy Books Editor. She continues to write and review extensively for the Observer, TLS, New Statesman and Guardian, among other publications. She also has a first class BSc (Hons) in herbal medicine, and practised as a medical herbalist for several years before becoming a journalist, specialising in the treatment of anxiety and depression.