Small Bodies of Water is sublime. It is difficult to find another word to describe this book. It is some of the finest writing to come across the desk. Lyrical, emotive, poignant and beautifully crafted. Powles is a writer with a fresh voice but also a mature sense of security in the writing. As a poet, the coupling of images and concrete elements to explore atmospheric and emotional considerations is almost Dickinsonian in her approach.
As a young writer, Powles has that youthful exuberance and originality almost untarnished and unworn by the critics and voices that turn the raw edges into sanded and varnished prose. Beautiful but unoriginal. One can only hope that she will retain that edginess that is her forte.
The exploration of the self is evident in her writing. Powles presents herself as almost neither authentically Asian, nor Caucasian, and it is this constant struggle that creates the conflict that forces her to consider her own position in life. One shared by many without a doubt.
A stand out is the evocation of New Zealand throughout, but centred in the beautiful tree that stands stoically in London - “Where the Kōwhai Blooms”. This piece epitomises the strength of her writing. The opening is the perfect example:
Wind shakes the flower clusters of the kōwhai in my parents’ garden by the sea. Fallen petals shatter in the grass next to the lemon tree, where lemons tremble and drop, creating a carpet in varying shades of yellow and gold. The smell and the colour of this corner of the garden is overwhelming.
(“Where the Kōwhai Blooms”)
This image goes on to become the symbolic connection that she has with her homeland. She speaks of the writing of Mansfield on the topic of the kōwhai and evokes the similar sense of homesickness.
Only ‘home’ is a fluid entity. She speaks many times, and in passionate ways, about her original home of New Zealand, particularly Wellington but other areas are thrown in for good measure. The stereotypical presentation of New Zealand in writing is there also, the summer beach outings, the river swimming and so forth. But there are two other homes that she speaks of, the first being Shanghai where she reinvigorates that part of herself through learnings and experiences shared on the page. Finally London where she speaks of moving to be ‘with the person she loves’ multiple times throughout the collection.
There is an episodic structure to the curated essay collection. Each constructs its own narrative arc but fits within a greater context of the overall story. There is obviously a close affinity between Powles and various elements of water. Sometimes the presentation of water is explicit - the sea, a swimming pool and so forth, and other times it is beautifully intrinsically represented.
Overall, there is a strength to the writing that is mature beyond the years of Nina Mingya Powles yet retains that free spirited tone of youthfulness. While everything about the grammatical structure and the word choice is on point, the edginess pervades all elements of the narrative.
Such an enjoyable, thought-provoking and insightful collection of essays. One finds it difficult to think another will come along like it in the near future. Bravo.
Reviewer: Chris Reed