A Spate of Swimming Memoirs

In the first four months of this year, I got my hands on no fewer than four swimming memoirs. For the upcoming July/August issue of Foreword Reviews magazine I’ve reviewed Floating: A Life Regained by Joe Minihane, in which the author recreates the late nature writer Roger Deakin’s wild swimming journeys from Waterlog (1999) in an attempt to overcome anxiety; I have Leap In by Alexandra Heminsley on my Kindle; and I read roughly the first 60 pages of a library copy of Al Álvarez’s 2013 Pondlife: A Swimmer’s Journal.

For now, I’m featuring Turning by Jessica J. Lee, which has strong similarities to these other memoirs – especially Minihane’s – but is its own beautifully reflective personal story. The book arose from Lee’s resolution, when she was 28 and in Berlin on a research placement for her dissertation in environmental history, to swim in 52 local lakes – a year’s worth – no matter the weather. At the time she blogged about her “52 Lakes Project” for Slow Travel Berlin, and kept friends and family up to date through social media as well. Her focus would be on the former East German region of Brandenburg, which has Berlin at its center and was first popularized by Theodor Fontane’s 1862 travel book.

Lee traveled to the lakes under her own steam, using trains and her bicycle; occasionally she took friends with her, but most often she was alone, which became a chance to cultivate solitude – not the same as loneliness. The challenge entailed all kinds of practical difficulties like bike trouble, getting lost, and a dead phone battery, but gradually it became routine and held less fear for her. On summer days she could manage multiple lakes in a day, and even small encounters with Germans gave her a newfound sense of belonging.

Within chapters, the memoir gracefully alternates pieces of the author’s past with her lake travels. With a father from Wales and a mother from Taiwan, Lee grew up in Ontario and spent summers in Florida. She remembers taking YMCA swimming lessons alongside her mother, and swimming in Canadian lakes. Back then the water usually intimidated her, but over the years her feelings have changed:

Water feels different in each place. The water I grew up with was hard, cutting, and when I go back to visit it now, I feel it in my ears when I dive in. something different, more like rock. The lake a whetted blade. The water in Berlin has a softness to it. Maybe it’s the sand, buffing the edges off the water like splinters from a beam. It slips over you like a blanket. There’s a safety in this feeling. In the lakes here, there is a feeling of enclosure and security that Canada can’t replicate. And it shouldn’t – the pelagic vastness there is entirely its own, and I’ve learned to love that too.

Swimming fulfills many functions for Lee. It served variously as necessary discipline after going mildly off the rails in young adulthood (drinking, smoking pot and having an abortion during college; a short-lived marriage in her early twenties); as a way of bouncing back from depression when her planned life in London didn’t pan out and a budding relationship failed; and as a way of being in touch with the turning seasons and coming to know the German landscape intimately. Symbolically, of course, it’s also a baptism into a new life.

Yet I had to wonder if there was also something masochistic about this pursuit, especially in the winter months. On the back cover there’s a photograph of Lee using a hammer to chip out a path through the ice so she can do her minimum of 45 strokes. (No wetsuit!) As spring came, ironically, the water felt almost too warm to her. She had learned to master the timing of a winter swim: “Between pain and numbness there’s a brightness, a crisp, heightened sensation in the cold: that’s the place to swim through. When it ends, when numbness arrives, it’s time to get out.”

The end of Lee’s year-long project is bittersweet, but she’s consoled by the fact that she didn’t have to leave her ordinary life in order to complete it. It was a companion alongside the frantic last-minute work on her dissertation and it never got in the way of her relationships; on the contrary, it strengthened certain friendships. And with Berlin looking like her home for the foreseeable future, she’s committed to seeking out more lakes, too.

There are a lot of year quest books out there, but this one never feels formulaic because there’s such a fluid intermingling of past and present. As memoirs go, it is somewhat like Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun – but much better. It’s also comparable to Angela Palm’s Riverine, with a watery metaphor at the heart to reflect the author’s conception of life as a meandering route. Unlike the other swimming memoirs I’ve sampled, I can recommend this one to a general reader with no particular interest in wild swimming or any other sport. It’s for you if you enjoy reading about the ebb and flow of women’s lives.

In the stillness of the lakes, the border between nature and culture is thinned. Swimming takes place at this border, as if constantly searching for home. Water is a place in which I don’t belong, but where I find myself nonetheless. Out of my culture, out of my depth.

There is more space inside than I can imagine, more hope and possibility than I’d known. Feeling as clear as the day, as deep as the lake.


Turning: A Swimming Memoir was published in the UK by Virago on May 4th. My thanks to the publisher for sending a free copy for review.

My rating:

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18 thoughts on “A Spate of Swimming Memoirs

  1. This one looks really interesting. As I work with quite a lot of students still, I think the dissertation aspect would appeal too – I’m always telling them to get out and get some fresh air, for a start!

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    1. Ha, yes! There was certainly a danger that she could have spent the whole year in front of a pile of books and a computer screen. My husband is getting to the crunch time with his part-time PhD when he’s actually going to have to start writing the thesis. Ironically, he might have to cut back on time spent outdoors to get the writing done!

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    1. Oh, excellent! She was new to me, but I so enjoyed her voice in this book. If anyone could get me back into the habit of swimming (though perhaps not wild swimming, or in winter!) it would be her.

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  2. I feel suspicious that authors like her invent a task so unique that they can write a book, and thus earn big bucks. Or perhaps it’s so they can earn a page in Guinness’ Book of Records, or at least a front page in the hometown newspaper — their mark in history.

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    1. I’m pretty sure she didn’t do this for the money — literary nonfiction rarely makes very much — or the fame. Just for the personal challenge and benefits, I should think.

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  3. This sounds good! My husband’s family are all swimmers, and both of my sisters-in-law have swum the Northumberland Straight between New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island (one of them has done it more than once).
    It did strike me right away, though, that she went to all these places alone. We were always taught to have a swimming buddy! 😉

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    1. I wish I was more of a swimmer. The last time I swam in a lake I must have been about 8 or 9, and even in a pool it’s been a number of years now. There’s no excuse, really, as we have a gym about a 10-minute walk away, and I’m sure it would be good, gentle exercise.

      Lee had a swim buddy for some of her swims, either a friend or a boyfriend. But inevitably it was the times when she was alone that she would get lost or have bike trouble.

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      1. Good to know she wasn’t always alone!

        I used to swim a lot at the pool before the kids were born – now it seems like too much trouble. I still like to swim in the summer, though, especially in the lake.

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    1. It was pretty much coincidental. The first one I learned of was Leap In, which I downloaded from Edelweiss. After that I was assigned Floating, which I’d heard about, as part of a feature article on upcoming memoirs. Pondlife I picked up at random from the library biography section and ended up abandoning partway through because the diary felt very repetitive. And then Turning I think I saw via a cover image on Twitter or Instagram and requested shortly thereafter.

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  4. I really like the sense of stretching herself, testing herself, that I got from reading the selections you shared. I am not comfortable in the water, especially not water I can’t see through or touch the bottom of. So doing what she did takes real bravery from where I stand. I also liked her style of writing. I didn’t think at the beginning of your review that this would be a book I’d possibly read, but now I am rethinking that!

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    1. She has to confront her own fears, too: fear of being alone in isolated spots and not speaking the language very well, in addition to being in deep and unfamiliar waters. I agree that it took a lot of courage to undertake this project. Her writing definitely stands out and means that this book’s appeal should not be limited to those who normally read sports-themed memoirs.

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      1. Your comment here reminds me of Leanne Shapton’s Swimming Studies, which is memoir, too, but with illustrations and unconventional overall. Her interview made it so clear (without explicitly saying so) that this wasn’t a book for sports-memoir readers per se, and I was so glad to read it because it touched on so many themes and ideas that I wouldn’t’ve been expecting (as you’ve described). This reminds me, too, of Angie Abdou’s novel, The Bone Cage, which also considers an Olympic-hopeful swimmer. Interesting just how many swimming stories are out there, once you start thinking about it (barely thinking about it, even)!

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