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Reviews

The Fish Ladder: A journey upstream

Jo Carruthers

The Fish Ladder: A journey upstream

Katherine Norbury Bloomsbury, 296pp

'Therefore, as soon as the name of God sounds in our ears, or the thought of him occurs to our minds, let the world become our school if we desire to rightly know God'. These are the words of John Calvin in his commentary on Genesis and they suggest the spiritual necessity, as Belden C. Lane puts it in his book Ravished by Nature, of a 'rigorous scrutiny of the world'. Whilst much of the nature writing that has been published in recent years bears this legacy of attentiveness, Katherine Norbury's savouring of the natural world in her memoir, The Fish Ladder: A journey upstream, makes it a notable example. Norbury is inspired by a novel, The Well at the World's End, in which the protagonist Peter Munroe is spurred on by an 'indeterminate longing' to find the eponymous mythical water source and travels the far north east of Scotland in his search. In imitation, she herself journeys upstream along successive rivers, closer to home, sometimes alone and sometimes with her daughter. Her 'journey to the source of life itself', is, she claims, 'Not an abstract journey, or a metaphorical one', although it certainly functions on these levels. Indeed, it's hard not to read it in these terms. She is led, as Peter Monroe had been, by a yearning for something fundamental, some vital source, something not quite articulated. These walks figuratively mirror her efforts to find her birth mother, to recover from the grief of a miscarriage and the death of her father and to cope with the treatment for breast cancer. She describes the 'fish ladder' of the title as a series of pools that the salmon must leap up in order to traverse an uphill section of river. These pools emerge in the memoir as these discrete events that nonetheless flow into and over each other through the narrative. But the walking is not, she claims, abstract or metaphorical. How, then, might we read it? It's 'a journey', she goes on to write, 'to the source of this, particular life', of her search for her birth mother, 'of who I was, and where I'd actually come from'. Lacking a family medical history reveals a material deficit and she discovers within herself 'empty spaces', that, she claims, 'I simply hadn't imagined could exist'. Walking as a spiritual act is famously celebrated (if not described in such terms) by writers such as Wordsworth and Thoreau and more recently in Rebecca Solnitt's Wanderlust. Norbury peppers her writing with epigraphs that gesture to this history of the importance of walking. She cites John Donne in the second chapter: On a huge hill Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will Reach her, about must and about must go. For Donne, the walk is no metaphor - the body must be pushed to action in order to unlock something vital. For Norbury, too, the search for her mother and the source of various waterways are both physical journeys: long drives, standing outside a house, camping out, the tramp along uneven ground. Her own story is one thread within the fabric of various legends of river goddesses, ancient and local myths, and the memoir takes on a somewhat otherworldly, mythical quality. In the telling of her visit to the nunnery where she was born she becomes the returning hero in her own legend. Yet Norbury's writing is down to earth and this is an everyday tale. It is a memoir about mortality, about death-inlife, and Norbury narrates her losses with an appealing straightforwardness. We eavesdrop, for example, on the conversation that ensues after her daughter asks her, while they sit on a bus, if she will die. The journey of the salmon upstream is hazardous and, Norbury writes, the 'high pools to which salmon make their way are also, for the most part, their graves'. The parent fish's death sustains their offspring, 'a curiously sacramental death'. And it is this sacramental character that Norbury identifies in the lives and life she encounters that makes this memoir simultaneously contemplative and celebratory. What Norbury finds and what she experiences is ordinary frustration, elusiveness and the occasional jubilance of long, uncomfortable, yet energizing walks in which she is sometimes at peace, sometimes disturbed by strangers. Walks that are full of deviations, mud and rain. Near the source of one river, she falls into a bog but emerges laughing and revitalized despite the pain to her chemotherapy-racked body. There's an unpretentious honesty and a simple joy about it all. What kind of truth can be found through rigorous scrutiny of the world? Needless to say, medieval and modern theologians have dissected and categorized truth and relegated natural to Scriptural or ecclesiastical revelation. Yet there must be something essential about nature's epiphanies that cannot be gleaned elsewhere. Norbury sums it up nicely when she describes what Peter Munro finds in The Well at the World's End. She writes: 'Truth hovers at the corner of his vision, sometimes flickering in the landscape just ahead of him, something appearing to one side of his path, only to disappear when he looks at it head-on'. This elusiveness characterizes Norbury's writing but the memoir is nonetheless more substantial than this equivocation suggests. In her beautiful description of Britain's landscapes, of her relationship with her daughter, her frustrated correspondence with her mother, her first meeting with her half-brother, within the questions unanswered, there is something tangible and meaningful not only in Norbury's willingness to approach truth head-on, however fleeting these moments may be, but also in those moments when the truth is beyond her reach.