I have a mixed record with the author’s previous works. I admire the risks she took and the sheer creativity involved in writing Budda in the Attic in that odd plural voice, but I didn’t like the story. I liked When the Emperor Was Divine much more. So, when I saw her name on the cover of this new book I stopped to read about it. My mother loves swimming–it is therapeutic for her. I swim like a rock–a legacy either of my father’s swimming-ability-gene or of my first swimming teacher throwing me into the pool at age 3 or 4. Naturally I was terrified. I did not remain terrified of the water, but did learn to swim. Just not well.
“‘Up there,’ [Alice] says, ‘I’m just another little old lady. But down here, at the pool, I’m myself.'”
An underground pool has a regular cadre of swimmers. They’ve been swimming here for years. They span the ages, socioeconomic classes, ethnicities, and states of mental health. There are high-powered men and women from corner offices, people from menial jobs, and a couple of people who might be better off in some kind of custodial care, and Alice. Alice is slipping into dementia.They are a community and they care about each other by observing the written and unwritten rules of the pool. All find a special part of themselves in the water. Feelings of power, of relief, of relaxation, or, in Alice’s case, of competence and command, of being a healthy adult again. Alice knows she forgets. The others at the pool know and are nice to her. They look out for her.
Suddenly the pool develops a crack. Is this community threatened now? What will become of the regular swimmers–of Alice?
The first part of the book was wonderful. I could feel the humidity, smell the chlorine, hear the snap of those awful rubber swim caps, see both the toned and the sagging bodies in their swim suits. I loved it.
Then came the rest of the book. The later chapters I have to admit I bailed on. They were too painful. My grandmother had Alzheimer’s. I couldn’t get through them. But, like the swimmers in their lanes, Otsuka truly hit her stride in this book. The prose was often beautiful–part narrative, part story, part poetry, part word picture.
One reviewer lamented that this was just a book of lists–lists of ailments, of types of swimmers, etc. I found that poetic and alluring. Otsuka’s special cadence makes it all work, but perhaps it works best in the audio version. Maybe the cadence isn’t as discoverable in the print version? Regardless I felt it all–which is why I couldn’t finish it. That is tremendous writing. I admire how she finds a new personal poetic meter to use in each book. That’s a special type of talent. My quibble would be with calling this a novel. I’d call it a novella. No matter.
This is one of the few novellas I’d go see if made into a short film. I’d like to see if the emotions it conveyed to me would make it to the screen.
Swimmers: A Novel by Julie Otsuka