This questing, emotionally charged memoir by former film editor, Katharine Norbury, is an exploration of origins and absences. Ostensibly about her Neil Gunn-inspired decision to walk a series of rivers to their sources, it soon becomes clear that what the author is subconsciously searching for is her own identity. Abandoned in a Roman Catholic nursing home when she was a baby, Norbury is ‘cosmically’ drawn to find someone with her likeness, saying:
I felt, I had always felt, dizzyingly adrift.
The book begins with the author having tragically lost a baby, and her decision to walk these rivers – often in the company of her young daughter Evie – begins as a coping strategy as much as anything else. Gunn’s book The Well at the World’s End concerns a protagonist motivated by an ‘indeterminate, and bittersweet longing’, that:
sets off into the wildest parts of the country, and finds adventure in the land and in those he meets, discovering all kinds of different things about himself.
A plot-line that The Fish Ladder can be said to mirror. But while Well gives Norbury the impetus for her adventures, she soon runs into difficulties as, having given her copy of the book away as a gift, she subsequently discovers that the work is out of print and curiously impossible to track down. This is one of the many fortuitous, perhaps fateful, misfortunes that befall Norbury throughout the book – as it is only as a result of the absence of Well that she instead purchases a copy of Gunn’s Highland River. A book in which the protagonist has ‘one, small idea… to walk a certain river to its source.’ This chimes in with a long forgotten wish of Norbury’s and so the course of she and her daughter’s summer is set.
In a particularly startling section of the book, Norbury’s intuitive nature, coupled with her love of walking, leads her to discover the convent that she was born and briefly brought up in. Working on a production in Liverpool one day, she decides to go for a walk rather than take lunch and drives out past the docklands until she reaches the sea. While there she encounters an overriding sense of familiarity – so much so that she begins to believe that she was born near the location. Unaware that she was born in a convent at this time, she asks a local if there is a hospital nearby, and is pointed in the direction of a convent that had also been a private nursing home in the past.
When she enters the convent to make inquiries, she is shocked to discover that she actually had been born there. Not only that but that she had briefly been brought up by a recently deceased nun in the period before her parents adopted her. Indeed all of the nuns there, whether young or old, are acquainted with her story, some even remembering her. The whole episode has an odd, dreamlike quality to it, more in keeping, perhaps, with a slightly sinister old black and white film – and one can only imagine how strange an experience it must have been for Norbury. Yet moments like these punctuate the book, partly, one feels, because Norbury allows them to happen. Like Gunn’s character she sets off to the ‘wildest parts’ to discover things about herself.
Towards the book’s close, Norbury follows the river featured in Highland River. Her beloved adoptive father, Professor John Norbury, has recently died and she has been plunged into a helpless depression. As on other occasions during the course of The Fish Ladder, nature seems to offer a metaphor for Norbury’s difficulties, as well as an answer which can only be felt rather than put into words. She follows the river for hours until she finally reaches the area described in the book as the source, ‘the waterhed’. However, she only discovers a small hole in marshy ground that the water disappears into – or rather flows out of. The loch – Loch Braighe na h’Aibhne – that Gunn speaks of is nowhere to be seen. However, when the early morning mist passes, Norbury sees a slight ridge and as she walks towards it she begins to hear water trickling underground, beneath her feet. And then:
The loch. Its surface, soft as pewter, mirrored the clouds. Salt-white boulders lined a powdery shore of crystal sand, unmarked and clean, its whiteness stained to the colour of cork by the peat. …I was choked by its loveliness; my senses flooded.
Norbury stays there for how long she doesn’t know, not swimming in the loch as she had imagined she would. Not wanting to disturb its stillness. It’s a moment of clarity in a world seemingly simultaneously overfull with love and despair. A world muddied by the many heart-rending obstacles that Norbury has to face in this hard-fought, at times bittersweet, yet ultimately uplifting, always rewarding memoir.