Jessica J. Lee's memoir navigates the reflection of multiple nationalities and a very singular heartache within 52 German lakes.

Jessica J. Lee

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.

At the age of 28, Jessica Lee — Canadian, Chinese and British — finds herself in Berlin. Alone. Lonely, with lowered spirits thanks to some family history and a broken heart, she is ostensibly there to write a thesis. And although 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 52 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 swimming — of 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 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. (From Hamish Hamilton)

Jessica J. Lee was the 2019 recipient of the RBC Taylor Prize Emerging Writer Award.

Why Jessica J. Lee wrote Turning

"I went into the swimming project — and the writing of the book — with very particular ideas in mind: that I'd exorcise some kind of pain and heartbreak, that I'd find my own sense of purpose. It was about three-quarters of the way through the lakes and the book when I realized that it was never going to be quite so simple. I could set out to swim, sure, but I couldn't control how it would make me feel.  When I visited Zeesener See, a lake I was hoping would eradicate the dregs of my sadness, I realized that releasing myself from these emotions wouldn't be that easy. Once I realized that, I started to accept how I felt and move forward with the writing with more lightness, and with some kindness to myself in the process."

I felt really scattered, and writingTurning gave me a way to draw these elements of my life together.- Jessica J. Lee

"A desire for sense of belonging — or a sense of home — was underlying so many of my motivations for writing the book. I'm half-Chinese, half-Welsh, raised in Canada by immigrant parents, so in a way questions about home and belonging were very important to me, but the year I wrote Turning I had moved between Toronto, London, and Berlin and had lived in about five different apartments, all while trying to finish my PhD thesis. I felt really scattered, and writing Turning gave me a way to draw these elements of my life together."

Read more in Jessica J. Lee's interview with CBC Books.

From the book

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.

From Turning by Jessica J. Lee ©2017. Published by Hamish Hamilton. 

Interviews with Jessica J. Lee