The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka — the memory of water

Julie Otsuka’s third novel The Swimmers is a slender but poignant portrait of a mind losing its grip. In an unnamed American city, a “little old lady” is drifting away from her family through the slow tragedy of cognitive decline — a passing into chaos foreshadowed by trivial domestic errors: “The jar of Pond’s Cold Cream in the freezer. The repeatedly burnt rice.”

An obsessive, joyous swimmer in earlier years, resplendent in white-flowered cap and green-smocked swimsuit, Alice now lives as a stranger to herself, visited by bewildering fragments of her childhood in Japan. At the pool, such memories used to surface benignly, and the watery recollections made her “enlivened and alert”, but Otsuka warns us not to trust Alice’s brief tastes of clarity. It is a mental descent, or perhaps a drowning, that is to come: “she will not remember a thing once she returns to her life above”.

The Swimmers is concerned with distances — between one end of the pool and the other, but also between homelands and adopted lands, between memory and truth, and between the family members whose lives draw lines between these points, and struggle to connect them. The Buddha in the Attic (2011), Otsuka’s bestselling follow-up to her 2002 debut When the Emperor was Divine, also dealt with emigration and loss, through the story of Japanese mail-order brides shipped to San Francisco to eke out a life of domestic servitude in miserable isolation. The Swimmers is a subtler tale, one that reads like a riddle in parts — we cannot gather up all the pieces of the characters’ broken lives, but rather bear witness to their disorientation.

Divided into two very different halves, The Swimmers is structured a bit like a lateralized brain, with distinctly rational and emotional sides in melancholy dialogue with one another. Otsuka writes the first half in “left brain” essayistic voice, offering an almost anthropological introduction to a much-loved swimming pool. The prose is arid and disciplined as it describes the progressively complex dynamics that emerge between the pool’s habitual users. With skill she also teases out slivers of the swimmers’ irrationality — their belief in a healing that can only take place in water, for example — and includes a wry inventory of the behaviours unique to swimming pools. “People to watch out for: aggressive lappers, determined thrashers, oblivious backstrokers . . . ”

It’s a laser-controlled piece of writing that slyly turns into allegory with the arrival of a problem at the pool — a crack. Like any kind of vulnerability, it starts to change people: “. . . once you’ve seen the crack, or think you’ve seen the crack, it quietly lodges itself, unbeknownst to you, in the recesses of your mind.” When the pool eventually closes, some feel relief — “No more fun for us. And now we can move on.”

In the second half of the book, Otsuka moves to a different narratorial stance, told through the voice of Alice’s guilt-ridden daughter who has to attend to her ailing mother with an already distant sense of her identity. “You rarely called,” she tells herself. “You left home early and moved to a faraway city from which you hardly ever returned.”

Behind this emotional separation is another lost layer — the physical inheritance that was taken by war. Her daughter writes: “All the other things you should have inherited — your grandmother’s Imari dishes, the ivory chopsticks . . . the black-and-white photographs of your strange, kimono-wearing relatives in Japan — were destroyed in the first frenzy of forgetting, right after the start of the war.”

Now, trapped in the corporate folds of a sterile care home, such objects would have no place. Alice’s life is stripped back to a painful, bare shell. On a visit, her daughter notes: “Her hands are neatly folded, like two birds, in the shallow dip of her lap.” 

One of the marvels of The Swimmers is its unshowy portrayal of the immense drama inherent in losing the mind before the body has expired. But perhaps even more impressive is its respect for the general confusion of living — a human condition which is omnipresent, with or without the ravages of dementia. Both Alice and her fellow swimmers understand the solution: to keep swimming, and for as long as possible.

The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka, Fig Tree £12.99/Knopf $23, 192 pages

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