Book review: The Fish Ladder - grieving mother journeys to rivers' sources

A grieving mother's journeys to the source of rivers morph into a quest for identity and the nature of belonging

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 February, 2015, 11:12pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 February, 2015, 11:12pm

The Fish Ladder: A Journey Upstream
by Katharine Norbury
Bloomsbury

That rare book that works its way into your very marrow in unforeseen and magical ways, The Fish Ladder: A Journey Upstream has been described variously as an example of "new nature writing", a memoir cum travelogue, and "a portrait of a motherhood and a hymn to the adoptive family". But Katharine Norbury's debut non-fiction work manages to avoid all the usual moorings of genre and form on its uniquely original journey upstream.

What begins as a coping mechanism, a device to get herself and her young daughter, Evie, "through an otherwise blighted summer", as Norbury describes her planned series of walks tracing watercourses from the sea to their source, morphs into something entirely original and intoxicating.

It opens with nine-year-old Evie writing in her journal that she and her mother plan to follow a number of watercourses from sea to source, carefully underlining the words, as their summer project. Norbury then tells of her miscarriage and of her hopes that this project might stave off the lingering grief, or more particularly the stasis - she declares the word "depression" too vague.

As an adopted child herself, the lost baby had triggered in her a desire to know where she herself had come from. And so her summer walks, her journeys to the source of rivers, become a journey into the source of her own life, into the nature of belonging, and the role of both genealogy and place in shaping human identity.

Norbury is quick to state that the idea for her project comes from the out-of-print 1951 novel The Well at the World's End, by Scottish writer Neil M. Gunn, who walks alone into Scotland's wild places in search of - and ultimately finds - a well at the world's end. But no one knows where that well is and, as she's gifted away her own copy of the book, she uses another of Gunn's novels, Highland River, as a guide for her own narrative.

Taking its title from Highland River's central metaphor, a structure that allows the annual migration of fish around an obstacle such as a dam, The Fish Ladder's narrative is shaped around chapters that bear the names of rivers and places. Norbury's luminous observations of the natural world reshape and reinvigorate all notions of the places associated with those rivers, be they the Humber or Mersey, Skell, Severn or even Font del Mont, the spring near Barcelona where she and her novelist husband, Rupert Thomson, live for part of each year.

Many of these rivers and places, too, bear the variant Celtic names, be they Scots, Irish or, in the main, Welsh such as Afon Geirch, Ffynnon Fawr or Madryn. Norbury's beloved holiday cottage, a wedding gift from her husband to anchor her wandering spirit, lies on the Llyn peninsula in northwest Wales, so her knowledge of its terrain, language and lore is intimate.

The confluence of certain places and remembered words are a lightning rod for Norbury, dragging her into deep emotional eddies

Norbury's narrative also journeys into the meaning of the old words and ways, and the myths that gave rise to them. The river Boyne, for instance, owes its name to the mythical goddess Boand, who comes from a tale in the Irish Metrical Dindshenchas. According to one version of these ancient legends, Boand went to seek out a well beyond her own land. All were forbidden from approaching the well except the gods charged with its care, so Boand was punished by the well's water, which followed her, drowned her and kept on flowing. It became known as the river Boyne, thus preserving Boand's name, but 14 other rivers were said to come into existence when she upset the waters of the well, including the Tigris, the Jordan and the Severn.

This sense of ancient roots tugging at the contemporary British identity ripples subtly through the book, much like Norbury's yearning to uncover the mystery of her origins, which gathers unexpected momentum late in the narrative, turning this unusual work into a mystery as much as a memoir, and meditation on nature and belonging. Besides powering the narrative flow of the book, the theme is handled with raw honesty, narrative skill and eloquence.

It's as if, too, at times, these ancient places through which she journeys dislodge primal memories as well as ever more acute yearnings.

While in Liverpool, for example, she reveals how she was drawn to the mouth of the Mersey by her initial curiosity in Antony Gormley's famous Another Place sculptures, consisting of 100 cast-iron body forms facing out to sea. Here, in the landscape, after turning away from the sculptures, she experienced such a pull of recognition that she'd asked if there was a hospital nearby.

Directed to a 100-year-old Sisters of Mercy convent nearby, which used to be a hospital, she knocked on its door asking if it was possible she was born there and whether she could look at their records, only to find the nuns knew who she was but not the identity of her parents. "I was born in the convent and had then gone out into the world." She returns to the convent with Evie and her adoptive mother, where they say the rosary together, but her thirst for the truth of her own origins remains undiminished.

Another sojourn in Scotland's Grantown-on-Spey unlocks childhood memories of holidays with her adopted family, who had nurtured her love for nature and who she writes about vividly in The Fish Ladder. A visceral grief over the loss of her adoptive father, coupled with that over her lost baby as well as an inexplicable sense of foreboding, seep into the narrative.

Literary references too stain its pages in rich and varied hues, but never in a pompous or studied way. Instead it's as if fragments of poems, passages from books and even popular songs, well up from her memory in response to place.

The confluence of certain places and remembered words are a lightning rod for Norbury, dragging her into deep emotional eddies, rather like the dubh lochs, or bogs, that she was warned not to step into. Marked on Ordnance Survey maps as "blue spots, half the size of sequins, these treacherous tiny bogs, otherwise known as 'black waters', are sometimes only a few feet across", yet can suck a person down within seconds, as Norbury later discovers while on a pilgrimage to the source of the river Severn. But by then, her life has been sucked into an even more treacherous bog, brought on by a confluence of an entirely different order.

All the foreboding that seeps into the first part of her two-part narrative finds shape and voice two years into her watercourse project, when the global economic crisis leaves her and her husband in financial trouble and they are forced to return to England. At the same time she is diagnosed with a rare form of breast cancer and her adoptive mother falls seriously ill. But by then, what had started as a diversionary summer project now lingered as a habit.

"The rivers had evolved into a metaphor," she writes. "The waters became my guide, companion and teacher. They marked a border between different states of being: solid, liquid, air."

Fittingly, it is the Thames that gives her the strength to defy the odds. While explaining to a pair of disbelieving tourists one day that tidal flows make the Thames run upstream, at certain times of the day, she is struck by the thought, that "if the mighty Thames could reverse its direction twice each day, then surely it was possible that I could survive my cancer".

By then, the pressing need to be able to pass on her familial medical history to Evie has led her almost to her birth mother's door. Don't expect a fairy-tale ending, although a surprise lies in store in its final chapter. Rather, The Fish Ladder is an enchanted book that drives home the relationship between human narrative and the natural world, and the life-giving importance of both to the human soul.

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