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‘Small Bodies of Water’ by Nina Mingya Powles *****

Nina Mingya Powles is an author whose work I have been interested in since reading her excellent essay in At the Pond: Swimming at the Hampstead Ladies’ Pond (review here). Her first full-length work of non-fiction, Small Bodies of Water, appealed to me on so many levels. Even had I not heard of Powles before, the quotes written by Robert Macfarlane, Amy Liptrot, and Jessica J. Lee on the book’s cover – all non-fiction authors whom I highly admire – would have drawn me to it. Small Bodies of Water won the inaugural Nan Shepherd Prize in 2019, and was published in full in August 2021.

Powles was born in New Zealand, partly grew up in China and the United States, and now lives in London. She has also spent an extensive time in Malaysia, where her grandparents live. As she so aptly writes, ‘Home is many people and places and languages, some separated by oceans.’

Small Bodies of Water is an exploratory memoir, about what home and family mean, and about belonging. The book presents a series of interlinked essays, woven together from ‘personal memories, dreams and nature writing’. The topics which she writes about are many and varied. Powles weaves in her own experiences of swimming around the world with myths and legends, earthquakes, food, wildlife, other literature which has struck her, notions of pain, waves and tidal movements, her difficulties in communicating with her grandparents, music, and Miyazaki movies, amongst many other things.

There are whole sections devoted to swimming, something which I personally love to read about. Focus is placed upon the ‘small bodies of water’ which ‘separate and connect us’ in which Powles has spent time. She learnt to swim close to her grandparents’ home in Borneo, where her mother was born, and where her grandfather studied the island’s freshwater fish for a living. Throughout her life, there have been many more bodies of water, from the ‘wild coastline of New Zealand’ to the Ladies’ Pond on Hampstead Heath, northwest London.

Throughout, Powles’ descriptions are evocative and expansive. In the first essay, she recalls the act of swimming with her cousin in Malaysia: ‘I hover in a safe corner of the deep end, waiting to see how long I can hold my breath. Looking up through my goggles I see rainforest clouds, a watery rainbow. I can see the undersides of frangipani petals floating on the surface… I straighten my legs and point my toes and launch myself towards the sun.’ I love the way in which she writes about water, and its constant movement. Later, she describes: ‘Underwater everything was different, bathed in holy silence and blue echoes. The slanted windows cast wavering lines a liquid light beneath the surface, across our bodies. We felt the way our limbs moved, lithe and strong and brand new.’ As she grows, she considers the way in which the water was sometimes the only place in which she did not feel self-conscious about her changing body. She also writes that water is something which always makes her feel grounded, no matter where in the world she finds herself: ‘The heat can’t touch me: a girl swimming is a body of water.’

Food is something which also makes her feel at home. Whilst she writes about this in far more detail in her excellent short pamphlet, Tiny Moons: A Year of Eating in Shanghai, here, she writes about eating and cooking in sensuous language. Food is a way to connect for Powles, and to have something of a communal experience even in a new place where she is alone: ‘In the Vietnamese restaurants on Kingsland Road in east London, we – all of us women in our twenties and thirties, all of us slurping pho in the middle of the day – warm our cheeks in the steam that rises from our bowls and coats the windows, shielding us from the gaze of passers-by. We don’t speak to each other, or to anyone else. We wrap scarves around our faces and step out into the melting snow.’

Powles discusses cultural identity with a great deal of insight, and muses about the meaning of belonging from the outset. She asks poignant questions, such as: ‘Where is the place your body is anchored? Which body of water is yours? Is it that I’ve anchored myself in too many places at once, or nowhere at all? The answer hits somewhere between. Over time, springing up from the in-between space, new islands form.’ Later, she tells us: ‘Home is not a place but a collection of things that have fallen or been left behind…’.

She goes on: ‘My markers of home are rooted in plants and weather. Wind that tastes of salt, the tūī’s bright warbling call, the crunch of shells underfoot, a swaying kōwhai tree. As time passes, these pieces of home begin to feel unstable, shifting further away. Long after I’ve moved away from Wellington, after my parents moved out of our house by the sea, after the garden has gone wild, a kōwhai tree grows in a garden in London: some small proof that although my pieces of home are scattered, I will always find my way to them.’

I was thoroughly impressed throughout by the scope of Powles’ prose. She writes in a manner both detailed and poetic, and notices every single thing around her. She explores at length not just what it means to belong, but what it means to be a woman, and to be believed, and to have mixed heritage. Of the latter, she asks: ‘Some like to talk in terms of fractions: one-quarter, one-eighth, one-sixteenth. I can feel all the pieces of myself getting smaller and smaller. How do I carry them all?’

I loved the structure in Small Bodies of Water. Each essay is composed of short, vignette-like sections, which work wonderfully here. Powles adds so many layers to her memoir throughout. She considers what it means to write, and the effects which it has upon her: ‘I think of my own writing and how sometimes, making a poem means making something exist outside of my own brain, my own skin. The poem contains parts of me and I still contain parts of it, but it’s separate from myself, distinct, new.’

Small Bodies of Water sings. Powles has created such a beautiful and thoughtful work of non-fiction, which will stay with me for such a long time. I admired the huge variety of topics which have been included, and the way in which she considers each with such attention. The author has so much to say, and does with astonishing beauty. Small Bodies of Water is tremendous, and I found something to ponder on every page. I cannot wait to read whatever Powles brings out in the future.

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‘Paris’ by Julian Green ****

I received a Waterstone’s voucher for my birthday – surely the best kind of present there is? – and set about spending it immediately. When browsing in my local branch, a thin, pale green spine caught my eye, and before I knew it, I had added Julian Green’s Paris to the rather large stack of books which I was already balancing in my arms. Part of the reason that I picked it up was my love for Penguin Classics, but mostly it was due to the fact that a holiday in France – one of my favourite countries, and one in which I have been lucky enough to spend a large span of time in my life so far – sadly looks very much off the cards in 2021.

It is described in its blurb as an ‘extraordinary, lyrical love letter… taking the reader on an imaginative journey around its secret stairways, courtyards, alleys and hidden places.’ Further, the blurb declares, it is ‘a meditation on getting lost and wasting time, and on what it truly means to love a city.’ I was further intrigued when I read that the Observer calls Paris ‘the most bizarre and delicious of travel books’. Sold, to the girl with the voucher.

Julian Green was born in Paris in 1900, to American parents, and spent the majority of his life in the city. He was a prolific author whom I had never read before, publishing over sixty-five books in France, and a further five in the USA. He wrote mainly in French; indeed, Paris was originally penned in this Romantic language. The Penguin edition is interestingly a bilingual one, the first of the kind which I have read to date. I am just about proficient enough in French to read Green’s original text, but I appreciated being able to compare and contrast his own turns of phrase with those in the translation by J.A. Underwood.

Green opens his travelogue in rather a charming manner: ‘I have often dreamed of writing a book about Paris that would be like one of those long, aimless strolls on which you find none of the things you are looking for but many that you were not looking for.’ He goes on to explain why he wished to look at the more hidden corners of the city, commenting, perhaps a little controversially: ‘Possibly from having looked at them too much, I can no longer see the architectural glories of Paris with quite the open mind required… I make no secret of the fact that it is the old buildings that I prefer, and yet I should be bored to tears if I had to write a page about the Hôtel des Invalides… I should be similarly struck dumb by Notre-Dame… I prefer to remain silent; for me, Notre-Dame is simply Notre-Dame, full stop.’

When Green was forced to be away from his beloved city during the war years, the thought of his home sustained him, holding a great deal of comfort. He reflects: ‘Thinking about the capital all the time, I rebuilt it inside myself. I replaced its physical presence with something else, something supernatural…’. When he returns to Paris, one of the first things which he does is to climb the dome of the Sacre-Coeur: ‘It was as if the whole city hit me in the chest… Winter was drawing to a close; the dazzling March light already consumed everything, and as far as the eye could see there was Paris, wearing, like a cloak that kept slipping from its shoulders, the shadow of the great clouds that the wind was chasing across the breadth of the sky.’ He goes on to say: ‘Certainly the city’s smile is reserved for those who draw near and loaf in its streets; to them it speaks a familiar, reassuring language. The soul of Paris, however, can be apprehended fully from afar and from above, and it is in the silence of the sky that you hear the great and moving cry of pride and faith it upraises to the clouds.’

Green’s short chapters, which are more like a series of essays than anything, take us on a sweeping tour around the city. He speaks of Paris’ history at times, and writes at length about his favourite places to peruse. He is essentially a flâneur; on the Rue de Passy, for instance, he captures the following: ‘… the shoeshop where Lina, my nanny, used to buy those slippers with the sky-blue pompoms, and the stationer’s where flies basked in the sun on the covers of the exercise books, and the grim Nicolas shop, the wine merchant’s, and Mr Beaudichon’s pharmacy (he had such a beautiful beard), and the great gold letters high up on a balcony, proclaiming to all and sundry that a dental surgeon lived here… and the heavenly fragrance of the first sprays of lilac that the florist with the red hands kept in the shade beneath the archway of number 93…’.

Paris is a really beautiful, musing piece on what it means to be a Parisian. According to Green, ‘Every walk I have ever taken along its streets has seemed to create a fresh link, invisible yet tenacious, binding me to its very stones. I used to wonder as a child how the mere name of Paris could denote so many different things, so many streets and squares, so many gardens, houses, roofs, chimneys, and above it all the shifting, insubstantial sky that crowns our city…’. He goes on to tell us: ‘There is scarcely a corner of Paris that is not haunted with memories for me.’

Paris is not merely a romantic musing on the city. Green is remarkably realist in places about aspects of the city’s history, or areas which were perhaps less salubrious than others as he wandered. He comments that in his Paris, ‘Ceaselessly, day and night, poverty and sickness prowl the dreary Montmartre streets that in the tourist’s eyes glitter like a paradise of carefree pleasure…’. He captures such a great deal throughout, often in just one or two sentences which are loaded with detail. He writes, for instance: ‘If the night is a clear one, and if the shadows are sharp and the moonlight good and white, there comes a moment when the best-informed stroller, as for all of the mystery of his city is concerned, stops and stars in silence. Paris, as I have said, is loath to surrender itself to people who are in a hurry; it belongs to the dreamers, to those capable of amusing themselves in its streets without regard to time… consequently their reward is to see what others will never see.’

At just 119 pages, Green captures such a great deal in Paris. It was a delight to peruse the photographs included on some of the pages, all of which were taken by Green himself. He was an excellent chronicler of a city which holds such a dear place in my heart, and which I hope to return to as soon as I can. I found Paris to be a very thoughtful and evocative account of what it means to make one’s home in a single place, and to know it almost as well as one knows oneself. What a wonder, and what a privilege, to travel its streets with one who knew it so well.