Turning: A Swimming Memoir
Jessica J. Lee
This is a gentle book – a slow burn. Jessica Lee is living in Berlin working on her doctorate. Her studies centre on Hampstead Heath in London and her home country is Canada. She is like a fish out of water. The city is presented as a place of transients. No one stays. No one expects Lee to stay. But the lakes enthral her.
As a child, Lee’s experiences of water and swimming were tainted with fear. She nearly drowned beneath a yellow foam duck until rescued by a lifeguard. She watched teen horror films in which swimming-pool-ghosts drag pubescent bodies to their deaths. She stared at black Canadian lakes in which all the other family members swam, but which she dreaded. There is a sense of doom as family rows and parental divorce play out against a background of lowering clouds and slate grey waters.
Berlin is surrounded by thousands of lakes. Some of these are anthropogenic, such as disused gravel pits, whilst others are formed by glacial retreat. Some are lined with silk-smooth sand whilst others clothe themselves in green robes of algae in the summer. Some of the lakes are clotting up and dying whilst others sparkle crystal clear or sky blue. In the winter the shallow ones ice over.
Lee discovers that the science of lakes is called limnology and this fits well with her own multi-disciplinary area of environmental history. She studies G E Hutchinson’s 1967 treatise on limnology. It seems appropriate that he, like she, left his place of birth, which was Cambridge, England to work all his life in another country, at Yale, Connecticut. Two emigrants.
In Berlin, alone and often lonely, sad and sometimes depressed, Lee invents a project with which to challenge herself. She will swim 52 lakes in a year. This does not mean that she has to swim from end to end or side to side or in a circular manner. She must simply immerse herself, float, stroke, stay in or get out double fast. Sometimes she decides to do three lakes a day. At others, time stretches between one lake and the next.
The book is structured into four main sections named after the seasons. First there is summer. Last is spring. Autumn is fecund: the woods surrounding the lakes are full of fungi, and the scent of mellow fruits. In winter, warm mists rise from the waters and the crack of the ice provides heightened sensual moments: ‘the sharp cut of freezing water on my feet. The immeasurable black of the lake at its coldest. Swimming then means cold, and pain, and elation’.
The project is also one that embraces local friends as well as visitors from other countries. Bikes, or trains and hiking, take them to a lake. Some participants cannot swim. Some people don’t like to be out of their depth. And Lee, herself, has a strict rule: ‘Never Swim Alone’. As this is Germany, however, there is nearly always some other competent swimmer in the water.
Although entitled a swimming memoir, the book tells of Lee’s upbringing and early adulthood in suburban Toronto. Swimming takes place, largely, in the Brandenburg lakes. Earlier years in Canada were often painful and joyless as Lee’s Chinese mother and Welsh father fought to overcome their sense of uprootedness. Lee herself coped, if she did, either by withdrawal or by impulsive change-it-all decisions.
But in the city of Berlin with its necklace of lakes Lee begins to find peace and some joy. A lovely, poetic, sensuous and melancholy book.
Lee, J. J. Turning: A Swimming Memoir. Virago. 2017.
A version of this review first appeared on page 17 of the Weekend section in the Irish Examiner on 6th August 2017.