The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka

Julie Otsuka’s third novel, The Swimmers, opens in a strange but spellbinding way, with a cultural anthropology of a California swimming pool and the people who regularly swim in it. We meet them, the swimmers, deep underground, stroking the water at various stages of life and fitness. Some come to the pool to alleviate physical or emotional aches and pains. Others swim out of habit. Some take the fast lane; others can only move slow. All of them, when underwater, leave their real world behind, becoming graceful and agile as they doggedly follow the black line at the bottom of the pool. It’s a singular community, with rules and an etiquette of its own. In this microcosm of America, Otsuka subtly captures the water’s transformative, healing powers – the pool is a near-sacred space populated by emphatically human beings.

Like much of The Swimmers, it’s funny, but also very moving. This opening reads beautifully on its own, and you might well ask: what’s the point of it all? But as Otsuka’s lens narrows it becomes unambiguous where the real story is. A crack appears at the bottom of the pool. One swimmer – Alice, an older Japanese-American woman in the early throes of dementia – emerges to take centre stage. The novel’s experimental mode continues with an inventory of the things Alice can remember and with a chillingly satirical ‘welcome’ to the care facility where she will spend the rest of her days, but the literary flair is always grounded in precise emotions. As Alice’s memories submerge, those of her daughter, a novelist, surface. Through the daughter’s regrets and remorse, the mother comes into focus again.

The Swimmers explores memory, grief and loss with some unbearably good writing – unbearable because it booms with the hurt of experience. Stylistically ambitious, sensitive and mature, The Swimmers never flinches. It’s less than 170 pages but its waters run very deep. This is the first of Otsuka’s novels I’ve read, but it won’t be the last. I’m seriously impressed.

Joanna Di Mattia is a bookseller at Readings Carlton.

Cover image for The Swimmers

The Swimmers

Julie Otsuka

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