The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka

The things I love about swimming:

  • the immediate sense of relaxation as soon as I dive in
  • watching the tiles on the bottom as I churn through laps – it’s my meditation
  • the ritual – from the order of my laps to the way I roll my towel and bathers post-swim
  • the lingering smell of chlorine or the grit of salt

The specifics: I’m a medium-laner; always a 50-metre pool; always outdoors (all year round).

The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka is a novel in two parts. The first is about an indoor pool and its swimmers. Swimming can be a great leveler, and Otsuka captures this in her descriptions –

We suffer from bad backs, fallen arches, shattered dreams, broken hearts, anxiety, melancholia, anhedonia, the usual aboveground afflictions.

…in the twilight of lackluster real estate careers, in the middle of long and protracted divorces (It’s year seven), infertile, in our prime, in a rut, in a rush, in remission…in deep and unrelenting emotional despair (You never get used to it), but down below, at the pool, we are only one of three things: fast-lane people, medium-lane people or the slow.

The pool develops a mysterious crack that baffles engineers, and the responses to the crack highlight the different temperaments of the swimmers. The narrator notes that they all had questions, ‘…Is the crack brief or enduring? Banal or profound? Malignant or benign?’. The main concern was whether they would be able to continue using the pool. Some swimmers –

…feel enlivened by the crack, exhilarated by it, even, as though we’d been singled out for a special fate. “This doesn’t just happen to anyone, you know,” someone says. Someone else says, “It does add an element of surprise.” Alice says, “It is a surprise.” Someone says, “I feel like it’s the thing I’ve been waiting for all my life.” Although in our darker moments, we cannot help but wonder: Is it a blessing in disguise, or is it just a disguise?

It is in the first part of the story that we meet Alice, one of the swimmers, and we learn that Alice has dementia.

The second part of the novel focuses on Alice, and her move to residential care. It’s written predominantly from the perspective of Alice, and the descriptions of the nursing home (named Bellavista) are deeply effecting. When Alice realises that the ‘outing’ her husband and daughter take her on is not for lunch but for something permanent, she thinks –

You should have done more crossword puzzles, taken more risks, signed up for that Great Books class, used up all your vacation days, removed the plastic slipcovers from the ‘good’ furniture… You should have lived (but what did you do instead? You played it safe and stayed in your lane).

The story highlights how we frequently fail to identify the moments that will become ‘the last time’.

The Swimmers is quite different to anything I’ve read before. Although I didn’t entirely like Otsuka’s ‘list’ style of writing (because it became predictable), I nevertheless could identify with something in each of these rhythmic lists.

At a glance, the link between the first and second parts of the novel is based entirely on Alice, however the crack (and the fact that cracks multiplied and got larger) was an interesting metaphor for the deterioration associated with dementia. Overall, I found Alice’s story the most compelling part of the book, and her observations about Bellavista made me feel very sad.

…not everything at Bellavista is as it seems. The alarm clock bolted to the table beside your bed is a motion-activated surveillance camera. Your red see-through Sanicup is a hydration tracker… The applesause on your dinner plate is a medication-delivery vehicle. Ditto for the mashed potatoes… The lovely carpet on your bathroom floor is an impact-reducing fall mat… The gardener outside your window is a security guard. And that mildly baffled-looking woman staring back at you from the bathroom mirror? She is you.

Both parts of this book progress to their inevitable ends which, nonetheless, and truly poignant.

As the days slip by you will begin to forget more and more. Your terrible childhood during the war. All the beautiful gardens of Kyoto. The smell of rain in April. What you just ate for breakfast.

3.5/5 Memorable.

If you were expecting something different – high-thread-count sheets, custom furnishings, organic yogurt and granola for breakfas, fresh three-berry sorbet delivered to your room on demand – you should have gone to The Manor on the other side of town.

When it comes to granola, it’s all about this salted maple version (I usually leave out the dried fruit).



3 responses

  1. I loved how the focus on Alice took the book from the general (the first person plural) to the particular. That and the second person section from her daughter’s perspective made this stand out for me, more so than Otsuka’s two previous novellas. Have you read the other “The Swimmers” that came out in the UK this year, by Chloe Lane? It came out in NZ a couple of years ago, so I wondered if you would have already known it.

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