The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka
Published by Alfred A. Knopf
Publication date: February 22, 2022
Genres: Book Clubs, Fiction, Contemporary, Literary
A beautifully composed, but unusual novel, there’s not a lot of action in The Swimmers so if plot and pace are a criteria for your summer reading, save this contemplative beauty for the fall. It’s the story of a swimming pool and the group of swimmers who churn, wade, bounce, and glide through its lanes. In the first half of the novel the narrators are the collective ‘we’ of the various swimmers, but in the second half, the pool is left behind and the story is of one swimmer, Alice, an elderly woman who is slowly succumbing to dementia.
All is going swimmingly (sorry, couldn’t resist) among the small, tightly-knit group of people who regularly swim at their community pool. While they would not recognize each other on the street, on the pool deck and in the locker room they know each other’s occupations, injuries, and personal relationships. More importantly, they know how they each swim—fast, slow, former competitor, or rehabbing a new hip and they religiously adhere to an old timers’ code of honor. When a small crack is noticed at the bottom of the pool it causes a reciprocal crack in an environment that was happily secure and unchanging.
As each swimmer responds to the crack—some refusing to swim in that lane anymore, some obsessed by it, others afraid—the group begins to fray. More cracks appear, but extensive testing shows they are not leaks and are not impacting the pool’s safety. But what are they? A sign? Something awaiting an answer? A portal? What was initially shrugged off feels more threatening as the existence of the one place they’ve gathered for decades is called into question.
The second half of The Swimmers leaves the pool behind to follow Alice, a cheerful elderly swimmer, who may forget the way home, but never misses a swim day.
“Up there,” she says, “I’m just another little old lady. But down here, at the pool, I’m myself.”
Her story is told first by herself, then from the perspective of the memory care facility she moves to, and lastly, by her daughter who is with her until the end. There is no happy outcome, but author Julie Otsuka recounts her voyage with humor, dignity, and compassion, infusing The Swimmers with a quiet acceptance of the unknown; whether it’s regarding something as straightforward as a concrete receptacle for holding water or something as infinite and profound as the final unwinding of human brain.
Looking for more quiet reading? Try Paul Harding’s Pulitzer Prize winning Tinkers, an extraordinary novel about a dying man’s reminiscences of his life.
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