BOOK REVIEW EDITOR-IN-CHIEF ELLA KELLEHER – The first page welcomes us to the pool, a sanctuary from all on-shore troubles. There are no nagging spouses, bills to pay, arrogant bosses, or spiteful children at the pool. The swimmers mind their business and swim away their worries. There are a few rules to follow, and one principle among them: be nice to Alice.
Comfortingly kitschy, eerie, and melancholic at times, The Swimmers (2022), is an easy-to-read literary journey worth bringing into the new year. Japanese American author Julie Otsuka, best known for her New York Times bestseller, The Buddha in the Attic (2011), reaches into the sometimes surreal and complicated world of human relationships. Not simply relationships with other people but also with ourselves and the places that make us feel normal again.
The first chapters of The Swimmers, written in the first person plural, bring fascinating characters to the fold. An eclectic collective with a shared need for escapism, this idiosyncratic chorus is united by the cult of chlorine and severe maladaptation to life on land. One swimmer in particular is given special attention throughout the story’s first half, a dementia sufferer named Alice.
Every day brings small wavelets of new tasks and challenges, but always penciled into Alice’s daily routine is a morning visit to the pool. In the water, she is fluid, long, and enchantingly aquatic. “‘Up there,’ [Alice] says, “‘I’m just another little old lady. But down here, at the pool, I’m myself.’” Each day a piece of her mind is lost to the degenerative nature of her condition, but in the water, Alice is in her element, a feeling she could never forget. Alice is not the only swimmer who feels freed. Eons of class, sex, and racial divisions disappear – “down below, at the pool, we are only one of three things: fast-lane people, medium-lane people or the slow.” In the darker water, not unlike the amniotic bliss of the womb, we are all the same. But cryptic cracks appear at the bottom of pools across the globe, disturbing the lives of swimmers everywhere – fissures both physical and mental. The cracks become personified and manifest in Alice, who suffers the most: “She remembers that she is forgetting. She remembers less and less every day.” Without the water to bring her back to normalcy, she loses herself quickly.
First, Otsuka writes as though we are Alice, slowly forgetting how to count, where to buy groceries, and eventually her own name. Then, tragically, we are Alice’s daughter. We begin to think of Alice as our own mom, a gentle soul living completely “in the now,” devoid of the thoughts and memories that weigh the rest of us down. Soon, we readers begin to long for the simplicity of life beneath the water’s seam.
Otsuka, in her poetic prowess, just might convince you to join her aquatic cult and enjoy the “temporary reprieve from gravity.” Scattered throughout her tale are the memories of Alice and her Japanese ancestors’ internment during World War Two, romance, heartbreak, and a traumatic miscarriage. Beautifully subtle in its profundity, Otsuka often racks up lists and litanies in her prose that start mundane and end in gut-wrenching tragedy that makes us more aware than before that our time is limited and each memory, no matter how ordinary or painful, is a core part of us.
Otsuka doesn’t offer a clear-cut ending that makes us feel some measurable comfort. There’s no such thing in life. We know the ending. It’s the same one for every living thing: death. So, swim on. One lap after the other. Stroke after stroke. Enjoy the “pure pleasure of being in motion” because everything and everyone eventually has to stop. Take a deep dive.
LMU English major graduate Ella Kelleher is the AMI book review editor-in-chief and a contributing staff writer for Asia Media International. She majored in English with a concentration in multi-ethnic literature.