Who are you and where do you belong? Most people get through day to day life secure in the knowledge that they have a home and loved ones waiting for them. But some people can be perpetually hounded by these questions as if their place within the world was uncertain. Even if we're told that we're loved and wanted it's difficult to believe. So we wander through city roads or hike in the countryside as if marking the solidity of the environment around us could fix our being in the world. Life feels too ephemeral and our place within the world feels volatile. This is why the character of Rhoda in Virginia Woolf's novel “The Waves” continuously knocks on objects reassuring herself that they are fixed. People find a security in rambling. Walking through a landscape there is a comfort to seeing and feeling it there all around you because you understand that you too are a physical presence within it. While moving through the world we can also move through our minds to sort through the memories and stories we carry which make us who we are.
Katharine Norbury's candid memoir records her expedition to trace a river to its source. Like the central metaphor of a fish ladder this isn't a straightforward start to finish journey. There are pools of experience along the way which hold her. The primary impetus for making this trek is the miscarriage of her unborn child. This raises questions of legacy. She was adopted at a young age and cared for, but has no knowledge of her birth parents. With her adoptive father's death, the critical illness of her mother and her own diagnosis with cancer, life is understood to be incredibly fragile. She has a wonderfully supportive husband and friends. But, in terms of blood ties, she and her adolescent daughter Evie exist in a circumscribed genealogical pond. Since Norbury is acutely aware of this she seeks to discover who her birth mother is like she seeks the source from which a river flows. The result is an emotional journey which reassesses the meaning of belonging.
The writing in this book is absolutely stunning. Norbury's figurative language recasts the landscapes of Spain, Wales and Scotland so they feel invigoratingly fresh and alive. She imbues physical place with her own being – all the memories and possibilities of what might have been: “The rest I left on the shore; a life I could have known, but never did, its myriad possibilities suspended.” Alongside the author’s observations about the world around her she references a diverse and relevant range of poetry from the likes of R.S. Thomas, John Donne and Dylan Thomas; prose writers such as C.S. Lewis, Wilkie Collins, Isak Dinesen and John Cheever; classical texts such as “The Mabinogion”, “The Odyssey of Homer”, local mythology and the myth of Persephone. Quotes from these texts add an informed understanding of how her touching expeditions and experiences are a part of the fabric of history and place. Even the lyrics of ‘Over the Rainbow’ which the author hums occasionally during her walks take on an added level of poignancy. But the overriding texts which inform this memoir are Neil M Gunn’s “Highland River” and “The Well at the World’s End” which literally inform the travels she takes. His spirited desire to connect with nature also influences the way in which Norbury interacts with and lyrically interprets the world around her.
So beautiful are her passages about the environment she holidays in or walks through you could almost miss the dangerous hint of menace underlying much of it as she sorts through her emotions and the past. Like stepping into a covered sinkhole suddenly you can find yourself enveloped in the heartbreaking centre of her pressing dilemmas. The facts of these hit the reader with their stark truth such as this passage about her husband: “The argument that had railed over the baby, the possibility of the baby, the things that had been said, that could not now be unsaid lay between us like a badly made rope bridge upon which I dared not trust my weight.” The turmoil of a couple who experience the loss of an unborn child is sensitively handled. The only other book I can think of that has approached this subject with as much meaning is Niven Govinden’s powerful novel “Black Bread White Beer”. A sense of mourning is keenly felt as a persistent undercurrent in Norbury’s day to day life. Alongside encounters with beauty, joy and disappointment “I carried my dead in a net, a clattering catch of bones, of promise, of might-have-been.” The potential for possible alternative futures if loved ones had lived is deeply felt in all experience.
Family is key factor in understanding who we are. Norbury elegantly describes this: “Genealogy allows us to construct our identities from our own myths and legends, to know who we are, and where we have come from. Or we can use the stories as a starting point from where we might like to go, a legacy to be built on or rebelled against.” Without this foundation it’s difficult to build a story of one’s own. The author addresses not only the emotionally fraught experience of an adoptee trying to connect with the family she was born into, but also the logical complications with doing so. The surprising results of her discoveries are both devastating and inspiringly hopeful.
It’s natural to compare this memoir about grief with last year’s multi-award winning brilliant book “H is for Hawk” about a woman dealing with the loss of her father. However, Norbury’s sensitive account is entirely distinctive. The writing is much more poetic and quick-shifting – more rooted in myth - in comparison to Macdonald’s rigorously-intellectual and regimental prose. Macdonald remains intensely confined and solitary with the goshawk she trains whereas Norbury attempts to assuage despair through walking, searching and striving to connect with the environment and others. Norbury’s book presents a landscape heavily ensconced in a lineage within which she is struggling to understand her place due to her circumstances and the fettered nature of her bloodline. Of course, both books give equally valid perspectives, but I’m just trying to make the point that they are rather different in their approach and conclusions.
This book stands on its own as a powerful account of human experience. However, it will also no doubt give people who have experienced similar life challenges a touchstone of understanding and mental avenues through which they can process their feelings. Norbury doesn’t just deal with the riotous emotions which accompany her journey, but also the blunt reality of financial strain and emotional tension within a relationship that accompany severe loss and physical illness. This touching and elegantly-constructed memoir is an impressive story that needed to be told.