THE FISH LADDER
A journey upstream
ISBN: 978 1 4088 5923 0
Review by Alison Parfitt
The effusive reviews from the great and the good: Robert Macfarlane, Philip Pullman, Mark Cocker, James Rebanks, Sara Maitland, Michael Holroyd, Jo Brand and more brought a veritable host of benediction upon this book. Did this, perversely, stir my unease initially? And was it a whiff of entitlement that tainted my first reading? I was very admiring but I could not say I liked this woman who was revealing herself to me in this biographical account. So I read the book again and got over it.
The second time I reinforced my appreciation of her storytelling. Katharine Norbury clearly, and with lightness, tells of abandonment in a convent at the Mersey estuary, happy adoption, an international life, aging parents, miscarriage and difficult breast cancer. Then there are her summers on the Llyn peninsula in North Wales and adventures following water from sea to source which ends, or begins, at the Well at the World’s End, a real and mythical place.
Within all this is her keen eye for what is just there. Luminous and beautiful writing is what some of the admiring reviewers say and I agree:
“Three fox cubs bounced down the hillside, hot loaves knocked out of their tins. As I slowed the car to a stop they righted themselves. A wire fence, tufted with wool, acted as a buffer against a roll into the road. Their faces heaped together, as neat as party sandwiches. After appraising the car and the two of us inside it they circled back where they had come from, ululating, warbling, snout to brush, repeatedly glancing behind them, the next shunting tumble not far off. We marvelled till the cubs were lost – it was over before there had been time to steal a picture – and when they were gone there was just the Jew’s harp buzz of the wind in the grass …”
As you might imagine there have been mentions of this book in the same breath as ‘new nature writing’ books like H is for Hawk by Helen McDonald and Richard Mabey’s Nature Cure. In Katharine’s book it is the vividness of small moments together with the spaciousness of simple writing and what is not said but left for us to feel that offers insight. Richard Kerridge in The Guardian said “Norbury’s writing achieves a lovely unobtrusive merging of emotions and description, so that the landscape reveals her feelings and in doing so shares her burden …”
Yes, I can imagine how Katherine gains nourishment from the countryside, very especially from summers on the Llyn and from rivers and water. Many of the chapter names are rivers and water is a softly present thread throughout. But Rachel Cooke in The Observer said “…An examination of the consoling effect of the natural world on human grief and torment …”. Well, yes, but this feels too direct and superficial to me, if not a cliché. This book is subtle in this respect, and it’s not about examining, it is more about being.
While thinking about this and struggling to find the right words about this book, I also queried my understanding of ‘new nature writing’. Some of it is clearly about the other than human, for example Crow Country by Mark Cocker and some of it is more of an exploration, explicit or not, of relationship between the human and other. The word relationship suggests that there are two parties, us the humans and that which is nature as place or life other than the human. Whereas what some of the reviewers of this book sense is something less dualistic, more holistic. We humans are a part of nature, we are within, not outside. So what then is the nature in ‘new nature writing’? There are moments when this book hints at that, lightly.