The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka


Having read The Buddha in the Attic I was familiar with Otsuka’s unusual and surprisingly successful method of storytelling. This one introduces a community of swimmers who are regulars at an underground pool. We get to know them by the accretion of factual characteristics: “Some of us come here because we are injured and need to heal. We suffer from bad backs, fallen arches, shattered dreams, broken hearts, anxiety, melancholia, anhedonia, the usual above-ground afflictions.” And later, “If too much time is spent up above, we become uncharacteristically curt with our colleagues, we slip up on our programs, we are rude to waiters, even though one of us, Lane 7, little black speedo, enormous flipper-like feet, is a waiter himself.” The author mentions Alice right away, “One of us, Alice, a retired lab technician now in the early stages of dementia, comes here because she always has.”

More about the swimmers:

Some of us have to swim 100 laps every day, others, 68, one mile, or 102, a mile and a half. Or for exactly 45 minutes, Edwardo, Lane 6, or until the bad thoughts go away, Sister Katherine, Lane 2. One of us does not trust his own counting and always swims an extra lap or two, every time just to make sure. One of us always loses count after five. One of us, Professor Wang Wei Lee, author of The Solace of Primes, prefers to swim exactly 89. One of us swears she hits her bliss point the moment she glides into lap 53, “Happens every time.”

Then the crack appears in the bottom of the pool. At first it is very faint but nevertheless, is a source of great concern. One swimmer left the pool when he saw it and not a word was ever heard from him. Over the course of months, experts made pronouncements about the crack, but after there were multiple cracks, the pool was closed.

The focus then shifted to Alice and facts about her life began to accumulate. She was the mother of an author and had been interned with her family during the war. Once again the facts telling “what she knew” and then “what she no longer knew” were an effective way to tell us about Alice and what was happening to her. The connection between the community of pool users losing their pool and Alice’s demise is clear.

It was painful to read about someone slipping into dementia at a time when my frequent conversations with my brother reveal a distressing number of things “he no longer knows.”

Julie Otsuka, The Swimmers, Alford A. Knopf, 2022, 175 pages (I read the kindle version). Available in the public library.

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