This book was a cruel one for the sole fact that it made me bawl like a child. The tale of Alys’ life upheavals coupled with her travels up and down the canals of Birmingham (and sometimes London) is one that both intrigued me at points – Fowler is a gardener at heart and the facts about the different plants that she has in her garden and those that she finds on and by the water made me want to look them up myself – and also moved me to tears.
The book is a tale of the wilderness in the country, but also in ourselves and our lives. Alys goes through big upheavals in her life and comes into great self-discovery. Her translation of this is raw and powerful as you watch her fall apart and put herself together, helped by her boat on the canals, as well as her friends and family who appear within the autobiography.
Some of the topics of the book really hit home for me and I could truly sympathise and see myself in different versions of the revelations that she has to go through as well as the need to throw yourself into something else to try and control the flow of emotions (she has her canals and, eventually her garden, and I have my art galleries and libraries where I find my patch of calm).
As someone who lives in Manchester, I have seen first-hand the communities that can grow and thrive on the inner city canals and that some boats come and go, while others are there to stay for years to come. I am also unsurprised that some of these regulars found her and her little dingy very odd, or amusing a sight, when all they’re used to are canal boats and the occasional tourist-filled party-boat.
Her tales of weeds and vermin and the things you find on the canals are approached with curiosity and admittance of how they are just like any other plant or animal even though we may not view them as such and how, ultimately, our lifestyles have allowed them to thrive in pest-level numbers.
There is also many poignant life lessons to be learnt throughout and it was the short excerpts from other poets and the occasional one-liners given by Fowler and those giving advice to her (her mother is an incredibly wise woman and I need to find someone as understanding yet poetic in my life) that were the things that made me rapidly wipe away my tears so not to sodden the pages of the words that I needed to reread and continue through.
It has been a while since I’ve cried at a book – or outward media in general actually. In my own life, I am pretty weepy (not by choice trust me) but I used to have a disconnect from what I was reading or watching as I was a detached observer or immersed but as someone else. However the biographical nature, the fact that I knew that she had been through the stress, anxiety, and grief that goes with realising that you have lost who you used to be and have to move on, and the fact that I could relate to the deep, raw, brokenness that comes with such revelations, made this a book that I will reread and will stick with me as something that will remind anyone who is going through upheavals that the landscape, the canals and forests and gardens will help you and how you can map your world with not just locations but memories and people, some which are fond, some which bring nostalgia or pain.