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Biography & Autobiography Women


A Year in the Water

by (author) Jessica J. Lee

Penguin Group Canada
Initial publish date
May 2017
Women, Environmentalists & Naturalists, Personal Memoirs
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    May 2017
    List Price
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Apr 2020
    List Price

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Longlisted for the 2018 Frank Hegyi Award for Emerging Authors
“Jessica J. Lee is a writer of rare and exhilarating grace. In Turning, she sounds the depths of lakes and her own life, never flinching from darkness, surfacing to fresh understandings of her place in the welter of natural and human history. A beautiful, moody, bracing debut.” —Kate Harris, award-winning author of Lands of Lost Borders
Through the heat of summer to the frozen depths of winter, Lee traces her journey swimming through 52 lakes in a single year, swimming through fear and heartbreak to find her place in the world
Jessica J. Lee swims through all four seasons and especially loves the winter. "I long for the ice. 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."
At the age of twenty-eight, Jessica, who grew up in Canada and lived in England, finds herself in Berlin. Alone. Lonely, with lowered spirits thanks to some family history and a broken heart, she is there, ostensibly, to write a thesis. And though that is what she does daily, what increasingly occupies her is swimming. So she makes a decision that she believes will win her back her confidence and independence: she will swim fifty-two of the lakes around Berlin, no matter what the weather or season. She is aware that this particular landscape is not without its own ghosts and history.
This is the story of a beautiful obsession: of the thrill of a still, turquoise lake, of cracking the ice before submerging, of floating under blue skies, of tangled weeds and murkiness, of cool, fresh, spring swimmingof facing past fears of near-drowning and of breaking free.
When she completes her year of swimming, Jessica finds she has new strength, and she has also found friends and has gained some understanding of how the landscape both haunts and holds us.
This book is for everyone who loves swimming, who wishes they could push themselves beyond caution, who understands the deep pleasure of using the body's strength, who knows what it is to abandon all thought and float home to the surface.

About the author


  • Long-listed, Frank Hegyi Award for Emerging Authors

Contributor Notes

JESSICA J. LEE is a British-Canadian-Taiwanese author, environmental historian, and winner of the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction, the Boardman Tasker Award for Mountain Literature, the Banff Mountain Book Award, and the RBC Taylor Prize Emerging Writer Award. She is the author of Turning, Two Trees Make a Forest, and the children’s book A Garden Called Home, and co-editor of the essay collection Dog Hearted. She is the founding editor of The Willowherb Review and teaches creative writing at the University of Cambridge. She lives in Berlin.

Excerpt: Turning: A Year in the Water (by (author) Jessica J. Lee)

A swimmer can sense the turning of the lake. There’s a moment in the season when the water changes. It isn’t something you can see, it’s something you can feel. In spring, the winter ice melts, and the warm and cold of the lake intermingle, flowing together. In summer, as the lake grows warm, a green froth of algae caps the surface of the water, and when it cools again in autumn, the green disappears. The air thins. The leaves flash red and gold. And the water ‘turns’.
You come to know the consistent cool of spring and the stagnant warmth at the top of a summer lake. 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. And then winter comes, sharper than ever. Swimming year-round means greeting the lake’s changes.
There is an English expression for the lake’s changes: the ‘breaking of the meres’. It describes the point in late summer when shallow lakes – meres – turn a turbid blue-green, algae breaking atop the surface like yeast froths on beer. The Germans also have a word for the green of summer: umkippen. It describes the point when the water has turned to slick green, fizzling with iridescent algae.
But the breaking of the meres and umkippen capture only that single moment of algal rupture, the death of the lake from too much algae and too little oxygen. We tend to notice the obvious thing – the emerging sheen of an algal bloom – and reduce a word’s meaning to that tiny moment, that fleck of green on the surface.
The lake’s turning – ‘lake stratification’ and ‘overturn’ – runs deeper, taking in an entire year’s worth of changes in the water. Turning is perpetual. It points to the wider transformations in the water, as layers below billow and rearrange themselves beneath the surface. Even in winter, the lake is alive beneath the ice.
I long for the ice. 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.

When I was twenty-eight, almost as if by accident, I was sent to Berlin on a five-month research placement. I moved into a second-floor Altbau flat, one of the crumbling, enormous apartments that looks straight out of a Stasi spy drama. And from this old place with an old cellar that had once been used for escape tunnels, I set out into a world of pine and silken water, of craggy cobbles and peeling paint.
Berlin resembled the other places I’ve called home – Canada, Britain – but only in glimpses: in the way the skeletal pines would edge the lake, in how the old stones would grow thick with moss. Pain, brightness, loss and renewal were layered in the landscape: in the lush shade of Tiergarten, which in my grandfather’s days was barren, razed and desperately carved up for allotments, and in the crooked edges of concrete that had slowly been dismantled as kids my age grew up. I was three when the Berlin Wall came down. I don’t remember it, but I came to know it in my own way.
The footprint of the Wall was turned into a hiking trail. Pavements stopped you in your tracks, Stolpersteine, brass stumbling stones marking the lost. Roads radiated out like a dial, a stretched palm pressed on to the city. I thought the roads here had to be so wide, if only to hold the ghosts.
Half a year later, 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. I felt furious that I had succumbed to the dark vacancy of my moods, as though it were my fault. My heart was broken. Above all, I thought that swimming might help me find some new place in the world in a year in which I’d changed address five times. A place in a city that wasn’t mine, and that held layered in its streets a century of change and grief, ghosts in the landscape. Naively, perhaps, I believed that if I could find that place in the middle of the lake where every feeling slipped away, I might undo the hurt.
I’d moved again – this time into a stark white room with ceilings thrice my height – but spent only a few moments unpacking and settling in before turning my eyes to the map. The city at its centre, cut through by a fan of broad avenues and the rivers, the sudden countryside at its edges. Hundreds of spots of blue multiplied exponentially as the city lines crept into the surrounding land. These lakes and rivers – their intricate weave of water laid on to the flat North German Plain by retreating glaciers in the last ice age – had worked a tiny hook into my heart, and I could do nothing for it but swim.
Perhaps it was a drastic response. 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. So I decided to swim for a year, in the hope of finding some reserve of joy and courage in myself. It was a means of greeting the ghosts – mine and others – as they appeared around unknown corners. 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.
Of all the lakes near to the city, I planned to swim in fifty-two, a whole year’s worth, stretching my swims out through each season. Prone to rules, I kept the parameters simple: no cars, no wetsuits. I could take friends from time to time. My daily life would continue as normal. I was in the final year of my doctorate, finalising and refining a dissertation in environmental history. I was living an ocean away from family and home. There was pressure to hold things together. Swimming would be a way of staying with my fears, a way of staying in place. Above all, I sought to find some balance in it.
The summer in Berlin began coolly and then arrived fully formed, hot. Bright swathes of sunlight stretched over the cobbles, and the sky painted itself cornflower blue. The temperature rose and the air thickened only slightly as a hot, dry June settled on the city.
I looked at the map, traced my fingers over the lakes I knew – Krumme Lanke, Weißer See, Liepnitzsee, Bötzsee, Mühlenbecker See – and decided, as if by habit, to start at the beginning. Krumme Lanke, my first German lake.

Editorial Reviews

Longlisted for the 2018 Frank Hegyi Award for Emerging Authors
“Jessica J. Lee is a writer of rare and exhilarating grace. In Turning, she sounds the depths of lakes and her own life, never flinching from darkness, surfacing to fresh understandings of her place in the welter of natural and human history. A beautiful, moody, bracing debut.”
Kate Harris, award-winning author of Lands of Lost Borders
"Turning is many things: a snapshot of Berlin seen through the prism of its lakes; the story of a broken and healing heart; a contemplation of identity; a coming-of-age story. Perhaps most of all it is a journey through the senses. In recording her experience Lee explores ideas about memory, and examines the way she experiences and retains physical and emotional trauma. She discovers that she, and we, might erase or change our personal ghosts and recollections by simply overwriting them, layering them with new and different sensations, including different kinds of pain, until she, like the lakes she has come to know so well, has fully succeeded in turning."
The Guardian
"Her clear, calm writing encompasses the truth and terror of open-water swimming: the conjunction of human and natural history that it represents as we swimmers hang there in the water, caught between elements, between our land-bound lives stationed in front of liminal screens and the infinite deep that lies beyond."
The New Statesman

"[T]here’s a feeling that lingers after long days spent in water, feet on land but floating still, some cranial trick that leaves your body sensing an imaginary buoyance, equilibrium rocking in a lull one beat short of nausea while drifting off to sleep. Lee’s book is something kind of like that: wafting sweetly even through the weighty bits, her musings as steady and tender in sadness as learned peace. Too intimate to be comfortable, but told with a piercing vulnerability so affecting you wind up feeling close to Lee anyway, side-by-side and stroke-by-stroke, solidarity in life and lake and existential slog, 52 times over, together better for it."
The National Post
“Jessica J. Lee’s first book is lyrical and profound, told . . . in stunning prose and with poetic flare; it’s poignant and moving and passionate . . . a lexeme masterpiece”
The National Post
“A deeply moving meditation on solitude, yearning, loss and love. This lake of a book submerged and enveloped me. It is a truly beautiful offering.”
Kyo Maclear, author of Birds Art Life
“Lee’s language is sharp as ice on a frozen lake. It’s astounding, how, to explore her past and her own shifting identity, she uses the land as a metaphor, but tempers it with a view of yearning, the sight of someone once-removed, who can never really go back home again. Insightful, unconventional, moving, and inspiring, I think this book will appeal to anyone who has ever struggled across the darkness trying to find the light.”
Yasuko Thanh, author of Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains
"I loved this beautiful book. It's an attentive meditation on the pleasures and lessons of swimming in lakes, particularly in winter. Jessica Lee wears her bravery lightly and shares her knowledge with generosity. I recommend for outdoor swimmers or those who would like to be."
Amy Liptrot, author of the bestselling The Outrun
"Swimming tempers solitude in Lee's brilliant debut, Turning."
Times Literary Supplement

“Her prose is elegant and sharp … it’s a pleasure to accompany Lee on this journey.”

“Lee is an elegant writer; precise in her description, thoughtful in her observation, and most of all interested in the world that surrounds her . . . . Jessica J. Lee’s is a trip to the lake well worth taking, inspiring even this reluctant swimmer to reach for his swimming shorts.”
Elsewhere Journal
"[Lee's] beautifully written memoir combines personal memories with geographic and historical observations that should resonate even for staunch landlubbers."
Metro News
“[H]er lyrical debut was enough to sell me on the sport, at least, and maybe mortality as well, water making good metaphor for both: calm in some times, violent in others, but constant, at least, lapping over and wrapping you entirely; inescapable, if nothing else.”
The Montreal Gazette

“Turning. . . is a remarkable book: part memoir, part nature diary and travel journal. It’s a book I always want to give to friends, because it is truly a gift. It has gifted me so much knowledge, not just about limnology – the study of inland waters – but in teaching me how to be alone in an unfamiliar place, and how to piece together your own meaning of the word ‘home.’”
—Electric Lit

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