Contemporary Literature

The Swimmers

This is not a book that was originally anywhere on my radar, but after seeing how much @thestackspod loved it (and she is pretty discerning in the fiction books that get her recommendation), I decided to give it a try. Plus, it’s just so small – so definitely worth the short reading time to see what it was all about.

The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka

The swimmers all know each other by the traits and styles they use at the pool, the one place where they all find solace and escape from their outside lives. When a crack appears at the bottom of the pool and the facility shuts down, they are thrust out into the world without their normal outlet. For one pool-goer in particular, Alice, this swimming routine was the last tether holding her strong in the face of encroaching dementia. And as she starts to lose herself in the confusion and turmoil of memory loss, her adult daughter narrates the observation of her stark and difficult decline. 

Reading this almost felt like reading two different stories, which was an interesting reading experience since it was already such a short book. The first two chapters bring the reader right into the world of the swimmers, all of them, in a style similar to that of Brown Girls, as a sort of survey of a population, their categorizations and differences despite this one (pool-going) similarity. This “survey” device is carried through the second chapter, as we see the myriad reactions of the swimmers to the crack(s) that appear(s). This chapter was actually my favorite, as the personification of the crack in the pool, everyone’s interpretations of its causes and motives and explanations, is both poignant and a bit amusing. What a way to showcase the breadth of humanity and our reactions to any event/situation, from the realistic to the absurd, the accurate to the extreme, the immediate and long term, in a sort of lightly satirical way.

From there, the story-telling takes a pretty big turn, as we move to focus on Alice, now being talked about in her daughter’s voice, as all the details of her expanding memory loss are presented in an incredibly poignant and emotional way.  The minute detailing of the absolute arbitrariness of what dementia/Alzheimer’s “let’s” a person remember or causes them to forget, and the same arbitrariness of the disease itself, and the specifics of diagnosis, prognosis, what life looks like now, etc. is similarly affecting. The complete lack of judgement dementia has – the way there’s no telling and preventing its arrival and your past and person are irrelevant in the face of it – holds a simultaneous universality and individuality to it that is quite affecting. 

Stylistically, this was so creative in its portrayal of a life, a listing of what one remembers versus what one forgets, and how that’s not static and changes over time, but is all a part of who one is. It was tough to read because it was so aesthetically great, but when considered in terms of what it’s communicating, in reality, about what a person loses as they lose their memories, it is heartbreaking. The daughter’s incessant and excessive questioning of what caused the dementia, and what could have been done differently to prevent it, is a deeply recognizable hypothetical impossibility and manifestation of guilt and grief that humans cannot help but dwell within. And the reflection on the mother’s lost memories mixed with the memories seared into the daughter’s brain, along with a categorizing of what is left behind (both in memories and in possessions) as remnants of a person after a life ends, is equally touching.

I have some mixed feelings after finishing this novel. I thought that literarily it was spectacular, with the crack in the pool as a metaphor for the crack through one’s reality when memory loss hits, as well as the irony of memory, in the way that one can lose it while alive but that’s all that remains when they’re gone. I was, however, thrown by the jarring shift in the writing style and perspective about halfway through. And while that, too, may have been a literary device to portray the jarring life changes experienced by Alice and her daughter as a result of her dementia, it was too much of a change, pulled me too much out of the flow, for me as a reader. However, overall, Otsuka really hits the reader in the emotions, in the way Alice’s daughter speaks about her worsening condition and the reflections she has on what is taken from her versus what she retains. If you have ever experienced a loved one dealing with memory loss, there is a lot in these pages that will stir a variety of familiar responses, and a lot that will, perhaps, make you feel less alone in your loss and heartache. 


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