Olivia Laing spent several days to walk the Ouse river, which virginia woolf drowned in. besides the mentally disturbed woman writer virginia woolf and her husband Leonard woolf, Laing also incorporated pieces of archeology on the dianasour fossils, english wars, historical floods, and bird and plant spieces and their survival along the river. All these themes come together in the flowing nature of the river, its endless motion and uncertainty of destiny. The subtitle of the book is “a journey underneath the surface”, which is what drives the motion of the river and the people and the lives around it.
Virginia Woolf’s obsession with river is not only manifest through her repeated alluring of it in her writing but also her on-and-off mental state in analogy to the oscillatory nature of the water flow. Her belief in ghosts and reincarnation, adds to the journey a mysterious taste of the mind and body relationship. In sharp contrast, her husband, leonard woolf, holds a strong disbelief in any kind of religious afterlife. But his faith in the continuity of the earth carries him on his life in quite a different way than his late wife. Laing did a good job interweaving the story of both the husband and wife, but fails to draw any deep connection between the two important characters of the book.
As the reader can easily tell, Laing has a deep affection to nature and an impressive familiarity with plant and bird species. Her descriptions of the lovely creatures, unfortunately, quite easily lost someone like me, who probably becomes their worst in recognizing names, especially in a second language. The stories on the discovery of dinosaur fossils are quite interesting, and makes one naturally ponder the vicissitude of life and feel awed at the long lasting life of a water. The recount of flood events throughout British history strengthens the river’s role as a historical witness that has stood through the so-called disasters: disasters to the human life, but to others? maybe not quite so.
In comparison to my favorite of Laing’s book, The Lonely City, <To The River> fails to grasp my attention to every bit of passage through the journey. Admittedly I have skimmed through probably half of the book. The pieces that really speak to me are not only her vivid recounting of the journey itself but also her tender contemplations on the meaning of living and resolving solitude with her own self. I would have loved to read more on this. I would continue to be her reader.