I love swimming. I also love books. So when I was asked whether I wanted a review copy of Turning, Jessica J. Lee’s memoir of a year swimming in lakes around Germany, I of course said yes.
It’s always a bit weird reviewing a memoir. How do you review someone’s feelings?
You don’t, of course. You review how they presented them to you.
Turning isn’t really like anything I’ve read before. I don’t read a lot of memoirs or autobiographies, and I don’t know if I’ve ever read a book about swimming. But Lee captures perfectly what it feels like to sink underwater, to feel the cavern around you expanding and swallowing you in it. To plunge your head beneath the surface and feel as if you’re entering a new world.
A particularly intriguing thing about Lee is that she’s afraid of swimming. But not only does she not let that stop her, she becomes more hardcore about it than most swimmers do: she swims all year round in lakes.
I have swum in a few lakes over the course of my life. Mainly in the summer, at a set of lakes up the road from where I was living at the time, the beach sand sticking to my skin as I hauled myself out, surrounded by friends, laughing and joking and splashing each other.
I swam once in a lake in the late autumn. It was cold, and I was with one other person, and I didn’t want to get in, but I didn’t want them to think I was a wimp, so I gingerly immersed my body up to the neck and took a few strides. The water was brown and mucky, full of waterbird poo. I love nature, sure, but I love it even more if I don’t have its excrement all over me. I guess I’m just prissy like that.
I have spent a significant portion of my life living by the sea, and when I do, I swim in it regularly. In the pastel sunrise for about nine months of the year, until it gets too cold and I wuss out. In the summer, of course, tracing the coastline with strong strokes, feeling the waves beating against me, respecting and marvelling at the power of the water. Once in November, off the Sussex coast, I came up shivering and goose-pimpled, and when I stripped off my swimsuit there was a layer of seaweed underneath it. I felt like I’d been momentarily turned into a mermaid.
In South Carolina, when the ocean tried to kill me. In Barcelona, when it didn’t, and the water was azure and clear.
When I’m not living near an easily accessible natural body of water, I spend a lot of time at the local pool. When I was moving to the place I now live – the place I knew I wanted to make my home, rather than just another space I was passing through – one of my requirements was that it had to be near a pool.
It is, and I spend at least five evenings a week there, plouging up and down the slow lane or pounding up and down the medium one, watching the water turn different shades of blue as I progress towards the deep end and back. Seeing how the underwater lights refract through the water. Plunging myself under the surface of the deep end and swimming down to touch the bottom. Pretending I’m a mermaid, or a dolphin, or an otter, ecstatically rolling around and around, overwater and under, making the lifeguards smile that special smile people keep for those about whom they’re not quite sure…
So, I love swimming. Jessica J. Lee loves swimming. And in her memoir she captures the beauty of the time she spent pushing herself to do it as often as possible, come rain or shine, even in the middle of winter, cracking holes in the ice with a hammer so she could get into the water underneath.
She is more badass than I will ever be, in swimming terms – indeed, she is more badass than I ever want to be. But I was happy to read a memoir by a fellow swimmer, and to feel for a couple of hours that someone understood how it felt to lose yourself in a lake, or a pool, or an ocean.
If you’re a swimmer too, you’ll love it. If you’re a lover of nature, of walking around and taking in the world surrounding you, I think you’ll like it too.
Turning by Jessica J. Lee is published by Little Brown in paperback, hardback and ebook.
I received a review copy of Turning from the publisher. All views are my own.