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About and about

27 March 2015

Peggy Woodford on a journey upstream

The Fish Ladder: A journey upstream
Katharine Norbury
Bloomsbury £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30

THE subtitle of this unusual and beautifully written autobiography, A journey upstream, is apt, though Norbury's own life illustrates it in reverse. After she was given up for adoption by a woman who never saw or wanted to see her baby, Norbury's life opened out when she was adopted by a loving family. She is now happily married and has a daughter.

All seems well, but the miscarriage of her second child helps bring about her decision to walk from a river's mouth to the spring where it rises. It is as if she is pursuing the route of her own life back into her unknown start, searching for some sort of closure. But her journeys up several rivers and fish ladders (a series of man-made linked pools that help salmon reach their spawning grounds upriver) are often uncomfortable and inconclusive, a possible marker that, in turn, will lead to an effort to meet the source of her own life, her mother.

Early in her book, Norbury quotes John Donne's lines:

On a huge hill,
Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must, and about must go.

When I finished The Fish Ladder, I realised how crucial these lines are, because the book is full of searches and journeys, and of going round in circles, the effort seeming greater than any possible result. But there is also the part played by serendipity, by making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident; and when Norbury learns that by chance she is near her true mother, and even finds her house (no reply to knocks on the door), she writes to her. But the mother who refused to see her at birth will not change her mind. Norbury's journey upstream achieves much, but not that.

Like Helen Macdonald, the author of H is for Hawk, Norbury uses the natural world to try to heal herself, but, in the final analysis, the means become as important as the end.

Peggy Woodford is a novelist.

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