Move Like Water

My Story of the Sea

Hannah Stowe
Tin House ($24.95)

by Elissa Greenwald

In her debut memoir Move Like Water, Hannah Stowe immerses readers in the world of the ocean. Early on, the Welsh author connects the constantly changing outer world of the ocean with her troubled inner one: “There was a current inside me. At times, it swept along straight and true, serene on the surface, but determinedly fast flowing. At others, the winds of life would turn against the tide . . . and I would rage, tempestuous.”

In the book’s opening chapter, Stowe tends to pile up phrases, with many sentences using five or more commas. While the lyrical style may lull the reader like waves, we start to long for events and characters that comprise a life, though we are given brief glimpses of the author’s mother (her parents are divorced) and companionable brother. Her mother, however, becomes more important as the book progresses; we learn it was she who both inspired Stowe’s artistic impulses and taught her how to swim, “moving with—moving like—the water.”

The book finds momentum in the second chapter when the author goes to sea, on a ship where “it was hard to tell the sea from the sky—the water was everywhere.” At sea, Stowe is continually off-balance, literally and metaphorically. In order to cook on shipboard, “You have to lash yourself to the stove, which swayed wildly on its gimbal, the pivoted support that allows it to swing with the motion of the boat.”

The dramatic action at sea brings the narrative to life. “In my roamings around the coast back home, I had moved through the landscape,” Stowe writes; “Now, the seascape built, fell, hurled, roared, and hurtled around me, dictating my movement with a Mephistophelian chaos.” There is no doubt that the ocean is Stowe’s true home: “I had found my north, the area of life into which I wanted to pour my passion.”

Stowe’s adventures at sea, where she crewed for scientific expeditions as far as Newfoundland, recede into memory after she suffers a surfing injury. Move Like Water here becomes a memoir of healing, both of body and mind. Comparing herself to Icarus for being dissatisfied with her life and always seeking new adventures, Stowe experiences recurring dreams in which she alternately becomes an albatross and a sea captain. Both dreams help her grow—the first through study of how the wanderings of the albatross resemble her own, and the second by inspiring her to buy her own boat.

The author’s rapturous descriptions of the sea and its inhabitants, from the lowly plankton to the lordly sperm whale, fulfill her goal to give the reader “an ocean to hold in your hands.” With a scientist’s perspective, a sea captain’s knowledge, and a poet’s soul, Stowe takes readers on a journey that enlists us in her project to preserve the ocean and its creatures.

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