Swell, Turning, Swimming with Seals review – the new wave of women’s waterbiographies | Books

What’s with all the water? As if a tide has turned or a hand has dragged through a lake to make a ripple, here come a wave of books on swimming in lakes, in the sea, in lidos. Each is by a woman who becomes a swimmer. Each is also about a kind of redemption. And snacks. Swimmers always have snacks.

To borrow Jenny Landreth’s inspired subtitle, all three are waterbiographies. Landreth takes – or swims – us through the history of fabulous swimming pioneers and what she calls swimming suffragettes, women who smashed prejudice and who enable us all to swim freely today and with strokes and costumes of our choosing. Jessica J Lee, a Canadian-British-Chinese academic transplanted to Berlin, chooses to swim through 52 lakes for a year, to gain strength after depression and a broken heart. Victoria Whitworth, a medieval historian, swims almost always in one place: off the Sands of Evie in Orkney, which is sheltered enough to feel safe, and where there are seals who look at her briefly before they move off with indifference.

Indifference: that is the lure of the water. Freedom is a word common to all these books, and each narrative runs along lines of one kind of redemption or another. Lee’s decision to overcome trouble by swimming in 52 lakes may seem like a book pitch rather than a genuine quest, and my hackles rose quietly at first. But with lake after lake, and train after train, and forest after forest, as she rides around Brandenburg, the land that enveloped West Berlin during the cold war, and that now envelops Berlin, the hackles lay still, and I was drawn in. I bobbed among these tales of lakes and their umkippen, the turning of their layers of water through the seasons. Lake, from Old English, meaning “an offering, sacrifice; also a gift”. Lakes, that “hold themselves open to the world. Broad plates beneath the sky, they welcome a swimmer fully.”

Still waters, but hers is the choppiest of these books, as she jumps from Berlin to London to…

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