Olivia Laing's book is a love-letter to the river Ouse in Sussex, a poetic blend of travel narrative, history and memoir. After a personal crisis, Olivia sets out to walk the Ouse from the source to the sea, her backpack stuffed with cheese and oatcakes, on a journey of healing and discovery. Her narrative takes in the history of Sussex around the Ouse. We meet the amateur geologist Gideon Mantell, a doctor in Lewes in the early nineteenth who discovered the iguanadon; Simon de Montfort at the Battle of Lewes; Richard Dawson who gave us the Piltdown Man hoax; and Leonard and Virginia Woolf. Laing also ponders those who have loved rivers, and been endlessly drawn to them, like Kenneth Grahame, and the effect of rivers on the landscape, and of humankind on those rivers.
Laing's style is reflective, turning over for the reader her thoughts and wonderings about the landscape and the characters who populate it. We are privy to her indecisions and confusions, which makes for an intimate, confiding text. Her knowledge is demonstrated lightly and the stories and histories she relates make the narrative digressive and meandering, much like the Ouse itself. I was faintly surprised by the depth of her botanical knowledge - she can spot a dozen species in a hedgerow - until I read on the back of the dustjacket that she used to be a medical herbalist. She is also a fearless swimmer; I would not swim in the wide, grey, tidal Ouse at Southease, even without the awful example of Virginia Woolf before me.
Laing writes a lot about both Woolfs, looking particularly at the representation of water in Virginia Woolf's writings, and unpicking the notion that her suicide by drowning is foretold in her novels and diaries, extracting alternate readings of texts that have been read as sinister or portentous, like the diary account of Virginia wading into a flooded Ouse that covered the fields around Rodmell, unworried about getting wet because she was wearing Leonard's corduroy trousers. But Woolf is an object lesson of the unpredictability of the river, which will take you, if you surrender yourself to it, but may not return you.
This book was particularly resonant for me because I've also walked the length of the Ouse, along the Sussex Ouse Valley Way which Olivia Laing also follows for the most part. I can still see vividly the places she describes. But the book has amplified the memory of my walk by connecting it to history, geology and to Laing's own experience of the Ouse. Above all, Laing's book celebrates the pleasures of walking alone in the landscape: "There wasn't a soul in sight, though I knew there were hordes of people beyond each ridge [...] I was nonetheless as purely happy as I've ever been right then, in that open passageway beneath the blue vault of the sky, walking the measure allotted me, with winter on each side [...] I felt untethered, almost weightless." Like Waterlog, this book will make you want to stuff your swimsuit - and perhaps some cheese and oatcakes - into a backpack and set off into the fields towards the river.