Grief, torment and a story that one relates with: these are the things that together begin Katharine Norbury’s journey upstream. This is a unique story of serendipity spurred by bereavement of a long-awaited unborn baby. Neil M Gunn’s novel The Well at the World’s End, whose hero, Peter Munro, wanders impulsively in Scotland’s wildest places in search of the nameless spring of the book’s title, is the impetus that makes Norbury associate life with water, and sets out on a journey that makes The Fish Ladder.
A fish ladder is a structure that allows the natural migration of fish around an obstacle, such as a dam. Most fish ladders are a series of pools arranged in low steps (hence ladder) that the fish swim and leap up to reach the open waters on the other side.
The velocity of water falling over the steps has to be great enough to attract fish to the ladder, but it cannot be so great that it washes them back <g data-gr-id="47">downstream,</g> or exhaust them to the point of inability to continue their journey up the river. In the course of the story, we learn that this concept of a fishway is the very crux of Norbury’s expedition and what unfolds with it.
In the various trips, Norbury’s journeys take <g data-gr-id="45">the her</g> reader and to places like Spurn Point in east Yorkshire, to St. Mary’s Well on the Llyn Peninsula, and to the River Severn, and she writes about them all. “A popping sound, as though a hundred mouths sucked bull’s eyes” she hears the noise made by marsh gas at Spurn Point. Driving through Wales, the sight of three fox cubs bouncing down the hillside were “hot loaves knocked out of their <g data-gr-id="43">tins</g>”.
Camping alone in Scotland, she once wakes up to find a stag standing just behind her head: “His antlers filled the darkness over me; it was like looking at the sky through leaded panes.” In the course of her adventure, as much as she is propelled by the uncanny familiarity of certain places, the instinctive fear of a woman while walking alone also catches up with her from time to time.
The miscarriage is not the only source of Norbury’s pain. As the passage turns out, we learn of the death both of her father, and of a close friend; of her mother’s serious illness; of the author’s treatment for a rare form of breast cancer. Far more significant to the book’s structure, though, is the fact that Norbury was adopted (her memoir includes, towards the end, an account of her attempts to trace her birth family and a chance encounter brings her to the door of the woman who abandoned her years ago).
This is the source of a different kind of grief, and perhaps of the generalised homesickness she often feels. On some of her walks, Norbury is accompanied by her nine-year-old daughter, Evie.
There is an emotional resonance to this narrative that paints a portrait of <g data-gr-id="36">motherhood,</g> and presents a picture of a happy adoptive family. In this captivating story of self-discovery, there is <g data-gr-id="35">travelogue</g>, memoir, exquisite nature writing, fragments of poetry and tales from Celtic mythology. The journey that begins as an escape and a diversion <g data-gr-id="34">form</g> grief evolves into a journey to the source of life itself.
This is a very keenly and beautifully written book. The Fish Ladder,
perhaps, can work on the reader the way Gunn’s books had on her, for it to induce that intense nostalgia for unknown places that she describes so very well.