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The Trip To Echo Spring by Olivia Laing

Zehra Cranmer

Zehra Cranmer

If you loved Laing’s first book To The River, you shan’t be disappointed by her latest masterpiece which graced the shelves last year. To The River was hypnotic in nature whereas Echo Spring swallows you whole and pulls you along Laing’s journey into the lives of six of the greatest American writers that lived; Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Williams, Cheever, Berryman and Carver. Alcoholism is what bound them together. What is it that made such incredible souls turn to the bottle in order to function? The quest to find out is a personal one for Laing who knows all too well the effects of having an alcoholic in the family. Whether these writers turned to the bottle to deal with crippling shyness, homosexuality, mother issues or addictive personalities, it is Laing’s personal touch and pilgrimage which sets apart this reportage from previous works on these writers.

 

In this emotional yet intellectual piece, it is Laing’s critical eye and poetic touch which produces something fantastic upon these pages, take this extract for example; “You begin with alchemy, hard labour, and end by letting some grandiose degenerate, some awful aspect of yourself, take up residence at the hearth, the central fire, where they set to ripping out the heart of the work you’re yet to finish”. As with Laing’s first work, her words and work are fluid in all senses of the liquid form whether it is wading through her memory as a type of exorcism or visiting the homes of these writers in a determined attempt to understand what made them self destruct by turning to the bottle.

 

Once more, Laing walks the land of her subject which she submerges herself into fully, almost to the point of obsession. It’s an obsession in the good sense, I leave it to you to decide if an obsession can be classed as good but it’s the term I’m assigning nonetheless to her task at hand. The only downside for the reader is that they are likely to be left with a yearning for an even longer study on these writers but once more, that in itself is the beauty of this piece which has not set out to be yet another biography. It’s the small pockets of time such as on the train that Laing feeds through her own experience with alcoholism in the family. Her work changes tone, shifts a gear and takes on a cathartic quality which is harrowing and brave, it is after all, not any easy act to let the public in to view memories that had been fairly traumatic, even her own mind struggles to mesh together minor details. The personal touch such as snippets into what she is listening to on the ipod instantly transport us into the deep recesses of Laing’s mind and feeling in that instant, providing a reader with a sense of what they are reading is not something linear but a tapestry. There is something rather Woolfian about this.

 

Laing doesn’t approach this study as a form of distasteful exposé but treats each writer with a deep rooted respect and once more finds their presence imprinted within the landscape they were once a part of. This book once more demonstrates what a wonderful, quintessential English writer Laing is, even when submerged in America, far away from her own world which she has tried to leave behind, possibly in the hope that distance would work some kind of magic, maybe clarity or self preservation, either way, she manages to make a success of it as what you’ve read does not wish to leave your mind thereafter. 

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