Friday, August 5, 2022

Book Review: "The Swimmers" by Julie Otsuka

Julie Otsuka's first novel since 2012, The Swimmers is a uniquely told book about our obsessions, but it’s also a poignant story about aging, memory, and loss.

I’ve been wanting to read this for a while but wasn’t sure what to expect. It’s so beautifully written, although the way it’s structured, it feels like two separate stories with one narrative link.

In the first part of the book we hear from a collective group of people who swim at a community pool. Some have been swimming for years, some are newer, but all share an obsession with their lives at the pool, preferring to be there than anywhere else. The chapter is told in a collective “we” voice, almost a Greek chorus, reciting the litany of rules and routines, providing vignette-like descriptions of the swimmers.

When a crack appears at the bottom of the pool, the swimmers are dismayed. Some see it as a sign that they should find another pool or stop swimming altogether. And when the pool closes, they are sent back into their “real lives,” their pleasures and routines ended.

One such swimmer is Alice, a woman in the early days of dementia. Swimming gave her comfort, a circle of friends, a structured routine when everything else in her life is starting to fade away. The remainder of the book follows her as the dementia worsens, as she remembers some things and not others, and tells of her relationships with her husband and daughter, and their feelings of loss.

There is an enormous amount of emotion in this book, so if you’ve had a loved one encounter dementia, this may be triggering. It definitely feels a bit semi-autobiographical, as the daughter is a writer trying to better connect with her mother as she slips away. Just an intriguing and beautiful read.

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