Title: The Swimmers
Author: Julie Otsuka
Publisher: Penguin Fig Tree
Genre: Literary Fiction
Source: Personal Copy
We descent into something unpleasant. We fall toward it. We do not know how it happens, but when it does, we don’t even know how to witness the deterioration, because people around us are busy doing that. Not only witnessing it, but also remembering it for us. The big and the small incidents. The ones we have forgotten along the way, and the ones we will not remember soon enough. It isn’t that we choose to forget (or sometimes we do), but that’s how it is. Memory is like water.
The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka is a book about memory, about its loss, time standing still for some, maybe also about redemption, and forgiving oneself to a large extent. The Swimmers is a short book that cuts through you with its brilliant prose, reminding you of the transient nature of memory. We take such pride sometimes in remembering. I know I do, till I cannot remember the word for “chair” one day and I lose my bearings over it.
The Swimmers reminded me of my living parent and her mortality. Of how she could suffer from dementia some day and what would I do in that situation. The Swimmers, as the title suggests, is about a couple of swimmers who swim in an underground pool, away from the rest of the world, in their own blissful bubble. Till cracks appear in the pool, and everything changes. They aren’t allowed to swim anymore. Alice, one of the swimmers is slowly and steadily suffering from frontotemporal dementia – changing, drifting, losing her personality – cracks that take over her life.
Otsuka writes beautifully and with so much grace, that you wish the book were longer. She makes you a part of the story. You become one of the swimmers (even if you are petrified of large water bodies like me). You become the crack in the pool. Otsuka makes you believe you are broken (which you probably are anyway). She speaks of swimming as an act of praying. A ritual that has to be followed, speaking of people who undertake it, who become obsessed with it, who feel safe because of it, focusing finally on one person who perhaps represents them all – Alice. Alice who is now forgetting, soon becoming the forgotten.
As the chapters progress, the book of course becomes less about swimming, but more about memory and dementia – in a way also about swimming through one’s mind to remember, to hold on to what one can, to the husband and the children and their perspectives as you are swimming away from them into oblivion. Otsuka writes about it all – the past, the present, and what might shape the future. A chapter on the home, Bellavista, in which Alice is a resident after things go south is written in the most dystopian and clinical way (as it must) and shakes you up as a reader. Each chapter by Otsuka is carefully plotted – no sentence is out of place. Each memory, each object, each incident mentioned in the book makes you as a reader feel enough and more – about your life, the objects that surround you, the incidents that have taken place in your life, and finally about the impermanence of it all.
The Swimmers is a book that says so much in so little. What it feels like to lose a child, to move to a new country, to lose someone you loved a long time ago, the children you raised and what has become of them now – all of this in relation to what you were and what you are.
Julie Otsuka is a writer of great brevity. Her books have always been short, and yet communicate what they want to. Her characters are mostly lost, each searching and finding themselves, as though lost in a maze. Once again, I cannot gush enough about her writing prowess. The Swimmers is a book that will leave you thinking so much more about memory, forgetting, death, and how life fits in all of this.