Nothing lasts forever, as we are all well aware. We accept this as true…in theory. But few moments are more jarring, and depending on the circumstances, more painful than when we come face to face with this harsh reality in our own lives. We’re never quite prepared for it. In Julie Otsuka’s The Swimmers we witness this conflict with impermanence play out in two parallel storylines.
This searing novel begins as one might suspect, chronicling the experiences of a group of recreational swimmers, in their most favored environment, the local “subterranean” pool. Swimming is their obsession. Any extended time spent away from the pool, leads to dysfunction. And in spite of the strain it places on their personal relationships, the swimmers’ emotional subsistence depends upon swimming lap after lap in fast, medium, and slow lanes, ever observant of the delicate and esoteric politics surrounding community pool etiquette.
But a small crack on the bottom surface of the pool changes everything. Closures lead to more closures. And a pool that once represented reliability, a source of comfort and order, quickly takes on an air of mystery and potential danger, forcing the eccentric group of swimmers to finally come up for air.
Of everyone in the group, Alice, one of the older swimmers, is the most deeply affected by the disruption. Dementia is gradually erasing the person Alice once was, and the community pool provided consistency in a world crumbling around her.
The second half of the novel documents Alice’s decline. We see her life dismantling through the eyes of her guilt-ridden adult daughter, who has returned home to help settle the family’s affairs. Alice attempts to hold onto what was her life; recalling memories from childhood, reflecting on a failed romance, desperately waiting for her husband to take her cruising around town on their weekly drives together. But dementia is a monster. It does not spare its victims. Impermanence sometimes reveals itself in savage ways.
This novel is sad. There’s no way around it. Witnessing someone slowly becoming a shell of themselves is not a pleasant thing. But there are moments of clarity and gentle humor. Of stories being told and re-told. The re-telling becomes a plea. Remember me. I am no longer able to.
Otsuka reveals the sadness and beauty that exist in these moments of impending loss. There’s an intimacy that Otsuka depicts with crystalline accuracy, shaking you at your core with a simple turn of phrase.
Having lost both of my parents, I found this novel to be both reminiscent of my own experiences and enlightening in ways I wouldn’t have anticipated. Luckily, I had a box of Kleenex at the ready because there was no scenario in which I would have come out of this reading experience dry-eyed.
If you’re looking for a selection that’s light and fun, this slim novel isn’t for you. But if you’re interested in beautiful, evocative writing, in a story that will stick with you like master works often do, please consider The Swimmer by Julie Otsuka.
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