Turning by Jessica J. Lee

Sometimes, all the things you love combine in one perfect story. Such was the case with Turning by Jessica J. Lee. If you appreciate swimming, Berlin, hydrology (specifically limnology), the nuances in the German language, and memoirs, then read on (it’s not a niche audience, is it?!).

Lee, who grew up in Canada and lived in London, finds herself in Berlin completing her thesis. She’s lonely and heartbroken –

…as I was retreating from the deep end of depression, I surfaced with the bizarre notion that the solution to my problems lay in swimming.

She decides to swim fifty-two of the lakes around Berlin, no matter what the weather or season.

I didn’t know any people in the city, but I found in the middle of the lake a small, self-centred security, like a pin stuck into a map.

The lakes and landscape have their own history, and the stories layer with Lee’s own, demonstrating that particular places both haunt and nurture us.

So, to my very particular likes and how Lee writes so well about them.

Swimming –

When the water clears in the autumn, you can feel it: the lake feels cleaner on your arms, less like velvet and more like cut glass.

In the stillness of the lakes, the border between nature and culture is thinned. Swimming takes place at this border…

Water –

…the ways lakes hold themselves open to the world. Broad plates beneath the sky…

The movements of the water – lake stratification and overturn, the lake’s turning – are the cycles that keep the lake alive, ever-changing, breathing oxygen into every part of the lake.

Berlin –

…layered in its streets, a century of change and grief…

This crooked wash of brown and blue, once maintained by prisoners from Sachsenhausen concentration camp, will turn red and gold come autumn… But in the moments I get too close, I find it barbed. Himmler was here, and the Stasi.

German language –

The German word Landscaft implies a cultural landscape. It’s built into the very idea. To speak about landscape in Germany is to speak of a place shaped by people, and given the past century’s history, it hasn’t always been easy to speak about.

Memoir –

In depression, I had become someone I hadn’t wanted to be, emptied and hardened. I felt that I had to respond to it in kind, as if lake water might blast away my sadness and fear.

I knew there was no untouched landscape here: there is hurt that cannot be undone. I wanted to find a way to negotiate it, to live with it.

When you’re afraid, relationships are a good way to pass the time.

4/5 Exactly my niche.


16 responses

    • And to have read it while travelling to Berlin made it extra fabulous. Niche topics aside, it’s well written and very interesting (her thesis was about cultural history in landscape in Great Britain, so her perspective on the landscape around Berlin was fascinating).

  1. I’m sure it is an excellent book as you describe, but would you swim in 52 lakes in Melbourne? Are there 52 lakes in Melbourne, in Victoria? I’ve swum in Hazlewood pondage, warm, shallow but ok, and over here in Perth in Challenge Lakes, the rowing course which is shallow, muddy and disgusting. I suspect the protagonist would have injested a lot of mud, faeces and industrial runoff

    • There aren’t 52 lakes in Melbourne that you could swim in! German lakes are a little different – predominantly glacial relics, they do tend to be clear and deep. In addition, they are cared for because people use them for recreation (whereas in Aus we use the sea).

      I went on exchange to Germany when I was 16. My host sister and brother thought it was so funny that I was excited to see snow fall – I never had until then. I got my own laughs when they visited me in Australia. I took them for a swim at Portsea – they had never seen a surf beach and they’d never swum in the sea (only lakes). When they got out of the water they kept licking their arms, saying “It’s really salty!” 😂

      Props to you for swimming at Hazelwood! Not sure I’d be game.

      I would love to be a brave cold water swimmer – not something I can fit into my schedule at present (because I reckon you have to do it regularly). I read an interesting article a while ago about how cold water swimming assists in reducing depression – the shock of the cold gives an endorphin rush – will try to track it down as it was interesting.

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