small bodies of water –book review

small bodies of water by nina mingya powles

Straight away this book indicates poetry, from the lack of capitalisation on the cover to the beautiful title. Small bodies of water. That’s us. I thought about this when I was swimming recently and think I have never been described so beautifully.

“I never told you anything important about myself but if you had asked, if you had paused to listen, I would have said: my dreams take place in the rainy season.

Poetry or very poetic prose. Every sentence carries a lyricism, a hint of a wider, more exotic world, and hits a feeling that builds on this central emotion of being awash.

I’ve said before that I’m not a fan of traditional poetry with its cryptic descriptions of internal struggles I don’t want to know about even if I could understand them. But this is outward. It’s a poet describing her world and everything is connected with water. And I love water.

It’s a kind of memoir told in a series of scenes: not unconnected but not following any familiar narrative pattern. If you’re looking for a story you won’t find one. I had a different relationship with small bodies of water than with a novel–I picked it up and read a few chapters when I felt like it – a bit like going for a swim: I felt like a read, I dived in and swam for a bit and left the book feeling refreshed. Happier than before.

I know the Ladies’ pond at Hampstead where Mingya Powles swims when in London (she flits from Borneo to China , US, UK, to New Zealand – naturally multi-cultural) and it is a magic place. Many writers have tackled it but here the focus is almost entirely on the feel of the water through the seasons, including the depths of winter. This woman has commitment!

The scenes shuffle around a lot and the book includes many short film reviews, always with a water theme: “Spirited Away is a film that steadily fills with water: a flooded river, a drenched bathhouse, a train speeding across the sea.” These references indicate the youth of Mingya Powles; I’d never heard of any of them. Much of the book feels fresh and I hear a young woman’s voice. “Places in the city where reality feels altered: empty subway platforms; the floodlit streets of campus at night; the café with wet plastic vines curled around the doorway where we stood side by side, about to step out into the rain.” The writing plays in my head like a Wes Anderson scene.

Other descriptions are universal. Have you ever been in a small apartment in a tropical city and feel you just want to open a window? “My air-conditioning unit was so powerful that condensation formed on the outside of my window. I switched it off and pressed play. I felt the air grow heavy and still in my arms.” That last sentence alone almost sums up my year in the tropics.

Always the book circles around and back to the eastern Wellington harbour where Mingya Powles spent much of her childhood. I’ll always look across now and imagine a woman there, swimming through the water.

Author: Cristina Sanders Blog

Novelist, trail runner, book reviewer and blogger.

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