Reviews of The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka

The Swimmers

A novel

by Julie Otsuka

The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka X
The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

     Not Yet Rated
  • Published:
    Feb 2022, 192 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs
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About this Book

Book Summary

From the bestselling, award-winning author of The Buddha in the Attic and When the Emperor Was Divine comes a novel about what happens to a group of obsessed recreational swimmers when a crack appears at the bottom of their local pool - a tour de force of economy, precision, and emotional power.

The swimmers are unknown to one another except through their private routines (slow lane, medium lane, fast lane) and the solace each takes in their morning or afternoon laps. But when a crack appears at the bottom of the pool, they are cast out into an unforgiving world without comfort or relief.

One of these swimmers is Alice, who is slowly losing her memory. For Alice, the pool was a final stand against the darkness of her encroaching dementia. Without the fellowship of other swimmers and the routine of her daily laps she is plunged into dislocation and chaos, swept into memories of her childhood and the Japanese American incarceration camp in which she spent the war. Alice's estranged daughter, reentering her mother's life too late, witnesses her stark and devastating decline. Written in spellbinding, incantatory prose, The Swimmers is a searing, intimate story of mothers and daughters, and the sorrows of implacable loss: the most commanding and unforgettable work yet from a modern master.

The Underground Pool

The pool is located deep underground, in a large cavernous chamber many feet beneath the streets of our town. Some of us come here because we are injured, and need to heal. We suffer from bad backs, fallen arches, shattered dreams, broken hearts, anxiety, melancholia, anhedonia, the usual aboveground afflictions. Others of us are employed at the college nearby and prefer to take our lunch breaks down below, in the waters, far away from the harsh glares of our colleagues and screens. 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. One of us—­Alice, a retired lab technician now in the early stages of dementia—­comes here because she always has. And even though she may not remember the combination to her locker or where she put her towel, the moment she slips into the water she knows what to do. Her stroke is long and fluid, her kick is strong,...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

The Swimmers isn't a conventional novel, and at first I found the author's narrative style rather off-putting. Paragraph after paragraph reads like a catalog. But hidden within seemingly random sentences is an amazing amount of detail about the person Alice was before dementia took her memory. The narrative forms a sort of collage of the woman's life, fragmented but nonetheless making a complete picture. I love books that pack an emotional punch, but that do so subtly, without hitting the reader over the head with the obvious; The Swimmers is just such a novel...continued

Full Review Members Only (780 words).

(Reviewed by Kim Kovacs).

Media Reviews

BookPage (starred review)
With nuance, grace and deep tenderness, Otsuka ponders the questions that define our lives: Who are we without our memories? What does it mean to truly see someone else, to see ourselves? What is knowable about the world, and what do we do with the mysteries no one can solve? Funny, moving and composed of sentences that read like small poems, The Swimmers is a remarkable novel from a writer with an unparalleled talent for capturing the stuff of the world, whether mundane, harrowing or bizarre.

The New York Times Book Review
Otsuka's prose is powerfully subdued: She builds lists and litanies that appear unassuming, even quotidian, until the paragraph comes to an end, and you find yourself stunned by what she has managed, your throat tight with the beautiful detail ... This is a novel of not just accumulation, but repetition, scenes looping in the way that the mind does, or the way swimmers swim laps.

The Washington Post
This year's novel starts as a catalogue of spoken and unspoken rules for swimmers at an aquatic center but unfolds into a powerful story of a mother's dementia and her daughter's love. If Otsuka doesn't write another novel for several years, it will be okay. This is one to be savored and reread.

Booklist (starred review)
Award-winning, best-selling Otsuka is averaging one book per decade, making each exquisite title exponentially more precious. Here she creates a stupendous collage of small moments that results in an extraordinary examination of the fragility of quotidian human relationships...Once more, Otsuka creates an elegiac, devastating masterpiece.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Having concentrated on one family in her first novel, then eschewed individual protagonists for a collective 'we' in her second, Otsuka now blends the two approaches, shifting from an almost impersonal, wide-lens view of society to an increasingly narrow focus on a specific mother-daughter relationship...The combination of social satire with an intimate portrait of loss and grief is stylistically ambitious and deeply moving.

Library Journal (starred review)
Otsuka is noteworthy for her skilled storytelling and her ability to immerse readers in her characters' emotional journeys. Essential reading for those already familiar with Otsuka's work; those who haven't read her are likely to be duly impressed.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Otsuka delivers a quick and tender story of a group of swimmers who cope with the disruption of their routines in various ways...Otsuka cleverly uses various points of view: the swimmers' first-person-plural narration effectively draws the reader into their world, while the second person keenly conveys the experiences of Alice's daughter...It's a brilliant and disarming dive into the characters' inner worlds.

Reader Reviews

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Beyond the Book

Frontotemporal Dementia

In Julie Osaka's novel, The Swimmers, one of the main characters suffers from memory loss due to dementia.

The Mayo Clinic defines "dementia" as "a group of symptoms affecting memory, thinking and social abilities severely enough to interfere with your daily life." It's not one disease, as many different conditions can cause dementia. It's debilitating and progressive, and no form of the malady can be cured at this time (although new treatments may be able to slow a person's decline in some instances). Dementia is caused by damage to or loss of nerve cells in the brain, and symptoms vary depending on which part of the organ is impacted.

Fifty-five million people worldwide are living with dementia, and an additional 10 million cases ...

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