REVIEW by Samantha Hunt

NWR Issue r2

The Fish Ladder: A Journey Upstream

by Katharine Norbury

Katharine Norbury’s The Fish Ladder is a touching lamplight on loss and grief. The memoir follows Norbury on a school holiday project with young Daughter, Evie. Through a series of walks, they aim to trace a river from mouth to source. As their footsteps fall on the vividly described landscapes of the Mersey, Spey and Dunbeath, we learn of the author’s recent miscarriage, and share in flashbacks of recent tragic life events. From witnessing her father’s death, serious family illness and tracing her genealogy during breast cancer treatment, this story isn’t short of dark themes.

But Norbury’s writing has a lightness of touch. Early on in the episodic narrative, she is prompted, through visiting Antony Gormley’s ‘Another Place’, a set of statues on Crosby beach, into a flashback to the convent where she was abandoned as a new-born. Her use of similar metaphors of a muted landscape are deliberately repetitive, creating a chiming sense evocative of echolalia and, in turn, a desolate and mournful mood. The dunes are ‘characterless and dull’, set against a sky ‘drawn down like a blind’. It is a powerful style, vivid and rich in colour, a clever trick to connect landscape to the narrator’s psyche.

In this flowing style, each sentence is melodious; almost hypotonic. In Spey, staying in the hotel of childhood holidays, a young waiter catches her now mature eye for detail. As she lingers just a breath too close, the simile sings:

the skin of his throat was pale, and this, combined with the cotton [of his shirt] and the fairness of his hair, gave him a slightly studious look, although he exuded a butterscotch warmth.


Whether describing emotion, the landscape, spirituality or psychotic experience, Norbury’s prosaic prose fizzes from the page. She imagines her dying father’s spirit as an orange light; a potent picture: ‘I climbed onto the windowsill, and opened the highest window, and then watched as the shape slipped like smoke from a cigarette, and into the September sky.’

The writer is soulful, stylish, graceful, and demonstrates at times an impressive skill in fusing minute detail with seemingly incongruous metaphor. Noticing a small child during the most densely populated of her waterside walks along the Thames, his hair becomes ‘fluffy seeds of willow herb’, his fingers are ‘daises opening’.

For all of this careful crafting, however, there is one element of the book that truly stands out and sears the heart: exact copies of letters between Norbury and her estranged mother. Reprinted exactly as they were written with only her mother’s identity protected, we share in the author’s jarring ‘primal scream’ of longing. In a compelling juxtaposition, there is a sense that the unnatural pain seeping through these letters cannot be equated with the natural world she describes so beautifully.

Nevertheless, the result of this literal and figurative searching left me a little cold. I often found myself missing out on the opportunity to make the intended connection between loss and the landscape, meandering instead through an eclectic narrative where memory is recalled in detail but fails to evoke emotion. In Spain, more time is spent describing her friends’ parties than the pregnancy at the source of her sadness. At Crosby beach, the statues feature more heavily than the flashback the visit prompts. Too many new events here jar against their responding emotions. I was left with the sense that this story, in avoiding the emotion at its heart, had become something like a pastiche.

This is a great shame. The Fish Ladder has the potential to evoke strong reactions. There were moments when I empathised greatly. The meeting of Norbury's birth family, for example, had me on tenterhooks. But just as I became involved in the story, it had moved on without me. As a whole, the book falls a little flat, caught up, perhaps, in its own stream.

Samantha Hunt graduated last year with a first class degree in Drama; she is starting her masters in Creative Writing later this year.


       


previous review: By Fax To Alice Springs
next review: 1519: A Journey to The End of Time



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