From the award-winning author of WHEN THE EMPEROR WAS DIVINE and THE BHUDDA IN THE ATTIC, comes a slim, powerhouse of a novel about loss of identity. In shifting points of view, Julie Otsuka gives us an intuitive look at what it means to lose someone you love to dementia. Brilliant, reflective, compressed, nuanced, empathetic, and global yet intimate, THE SWIMMERS tells the story of a group of obsessed recreational swimmers and what happens to them when a crack appears at the bottom of their local pool.
Otsuka begins the novel in first person plural: we (the swimmers) are overeaters, underachievers, former welter-weight champions, second-rate fashion designers, convicted felons, cross-dressers, compulsive knitters – “but down below, at the pool, we are only one of three things: fast-lane people, medium-lane people or the slow.”
They know each other practically, but not intimately.
“One of us – Alice, a retired lab technician now in the early stages of dementia – comes here because she always has. And even though she may not remember the combination to her locker or where she put her towel, the moment she slips into the water she knows what to do.”
They swim for an hour in their lanes and then they return to their lives above ground, every day, until one day, a crack appears in the bottom of the pool and their routines, and their lives, are upended.
After the pool is closed, the story moves from the collective, to the personal. Otsuka tells Alice’s story in the third person, from the point-of-view of her daughter, an Asian American author. Alice still remembers who is president, she remembers what season it is, she remembers the day on which her daughter is born, but she does not remember what she had for dinner or when she last took her medicine or how she got that bruise on her arm.
As Alice is moved into a memory care facility, the story shifts perspective once again. In the narrative “you”, we learn of the daily schedules, tracking systems (you’ll never have to worry about losing your way again, because even if you don’t know where you are, we know where you are), and rules (you will wake when we decide you will wake. You will sleep when we put you down and turn off the lights.)
And finally, as Alice fades into the background, the perspective shifts again back to the daughter, and through her microscopic lens, we experience the intimacy of loss. THE SWIMMERS is a heartrending examination of love and loss, a story of mothers and daughters and the complex but intimate ties that bind them. I highly recommend THE SWIMMERS for fans of STILL ALICE.
This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews. Listen to my interview with Julie Otsuka on Superior Reads (90.7 Grand Marais, or on the web at http://www.wtip.com) February 24 at 7:00 pm and February 26 at 6:00 am CT.