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“The Swimmers” by Julie Otsuka

By Nathan Coker
In Bayou Pages
Sep 29th, 2023

review by Meredith McKinnie

“The shock of the water – there is nothing like it on land. The temporary reprieve from gravity. It’s just like flying. The pure pleasure of being in motion. The dissipation of all want. I’m free.”

Julie Otsuka’s novel explores the mundane nature of daily human existence and the idiosyncrasies that create unintended communities. Part one of this brief book focuses on a community pool, wherein all types of people gather for ritualistic routine and the thrill of exertion. They escape reality in the water, an aquatic community of unwritten rules that prioritize the experience. The swimmers fall into hierarchical familiarity, with certain lanes for the physically superior and others according to skill and intent. The order and structure of the community pool mirrors the scaffolding of society, made interesting by the diversity of its constituents, adapting and resisting conformity. When a physical crack appears and threatens the pool’s availability, this hodgepodge community ponders life outside the water, the pressures made weightless in water. 

Otsuka’s style mimics the movement of water, fluid and free, with rapid descriptions in succession, almost grinding the essence of meaning to its core and rendering it questionable yet again. The coveted underwater silence is recreated for readers, as the language seeps off the page. Alice emerges from the pool and the narrative as its belated focus, a woman struggling with onset dementia and craving familiarity. Part two explores Alice’s descent into a world without memory, an existence without order, a life away from the pool after its closure. The absence of the pool community illuminates her new world, as her husband and daughter navigate her care as recognition fades. Otsuka’s shift to Alice’s care facility and the plight of caregivers acknowledges care insecurity, the guilt of the family members when faced with difficult realities, and the mystery of those cared for, how they feel, what they know, and what other alternatives exist. 

This book swirled around me. I read it quickly, within 24 hours, and have pondered it continually since. Enjoyable would not be my description; admirable comes to mind – the craftsmanship with language unparalleled. The themes of isolation, routine, community, and inevitable mortality and loss swirl into this meditation on human life and the finality of its conclusion. I often wonder about the slow fade of a loved one, the regression from interaction and awareness. I wonder about the isolation of a relationship wherein only one person is mentally present – I wonder about that isolation from the one who is fading as well. Otsuka’s novel brought these thoughts to the forefront, and her lyrical approach to these questions forces the reader to sit in an onset of silence.

“She remembers that she is forgetting. She remembers less and less every day.”