Skip to main content

The Swimmers


The Swimmers

In some ways, THE SWIMMERS continues the work that Julie Otsuka began with one of her previous novels, THE BUDDHA IN THE ATTIC, which used a first-person plural “we” to narrate the experience of a group of Japanese women brought to America as so-called picture brides. Here, Otsuka opens with a long chapter called “The Underground Pool,” using that same first-person plural narrative voice, but this time the “we” is the community of people who belong to a swimming club.

In this surprisingly immersive narrative, these swimmers reveal the various reasons why they come to the pool: “Some of us come here because we are injured and need to heal…. Some of us come here to escape, if only for an hour, our disappointing marriages on land. Many of us live in the neighborhood and simply love to swim.” Readers are invited into this community, learning about their rituals and mores, what irritates them and what brings them joy. This lengthy first section, which composes nearly the first half of the novel, is humorous and poignant in turn.

"Throughout this slim but powerful novel, Otsuka’s writing is self-assured and measured, the seemingly neutral tone of her words making space for readers’ own responses and emotions."

Most of the individuals who make up the “we” are nameless, but one --- Alice --- is mentioned numerous times. Alice is a retired lab technician now experiencing dementia. As the appearance of a mysterious crack prompts the pool to be closed for safety reasons, she is among those most perplexed by this potential change in her routine.

The book’s second part turns away from the communal and into the particulars of Alice’s story, in a narrative shift that mirrors her own experiences as her dementia progresses. The remainder of the novel is divided into just three chapters, but each one is exquisitely crafted, using different points of view to recount her final months.

One chapter traces Alice’s memories and awareness, showing how some things are completely normal and functional, while others have gone significantly downhill: “Whenever you stop by to see her she remembers to give you a big hug, and you are always surprised at her strength. She remembers to give you a kiss every time you leave. She remembers to tell you, at the end of every phone call, that the FBI will check up on you again soon.”

The “you” here is Alice’s daughter, who --- after an intermediate chapter outlining the experience at the memory care center where Alice soon relocates --- becomes the focus at the end of the book. She grapples with her own sense of guilt and loss around her mother’s decline, along with the grief that she and her father experience after she’s gone.

Throughout this slim but powerful novel, Otsuka’s writing is self-assured and measured, the seemingly neutral tone of her words making space for readers’ own responses and emotions. She fully captures the agony of deciding to place a loved one in a nursing home, as well as the loneliness and confusion of those who live there. And from first page to last, she effectively illustrates the ways in which remaining in community with others is so essential to our humanity.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on March 4, 2022

The Swimmers
by Julie Otsuka

  • Publication Date: January 24, 2023
  • Genres: Fiction, Women's Fiction
  • Paperback: 192 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor
  • ISBN-10: 0593466624
  • ISBN-13: 9780593466629