Cover Image: The Swimmers

The Swimmers

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This third novel from highly-regarded, multiple award-winning Otsuka is a heartbreaker.

Short in length and simply phrased, it is divided into two parts, the first devoted to a below-ground swimming  pool in a Californian city; the second to the life – and death – of Alice, one of the swimmers.

Written in the first person plural and then the vocative, the book offers switches of intimacy and mood. At the pool, an element of social satire is evident and embraced. But Alice’s story is inescapably tragic, a mother/daughter narrative of intimacy and and regret.

Both halves are full of lists, accumulations of detail which Otsuka uses to convey brilliant flashes of identity and contemporary notes. In the dreamy other world – choose your symbol – of the pool, for example, there are the swimmers, their abilities and needs, the pool’s rules, the debris hoovered up from its floor, and many more catalogues: ‘Up above there are wildfires, smog alerts, epic droughts, paper jams, teachers’ strikes, insurrections, revolutions, blistering hot days that never seem to let up.’

And then there are the cracks. At first just a single, concerning blemish on the pool floor, soon this flaw will develop into an infestation that will challenge the pool community and bring about its closure, setting up the template for the novel’s second part.

Swimming laps had allowed Alice some brief respite from her advancing dementia. Its loss strips her of that comfort, leaving her unprotected from uninterrupted decline and ultimately the irrevocable switch from her own home to an institution. The ‘you’ addressed in this section is Alice’s daughter, a writer, childless, middle-aged and distant, invoking irresistibly the notion that the novel is autobiographical. For Alice is of Japanese origin, who, as a child, was deported with her family to one of the notorious American internment camps during World War II.

Both Alice’s and her daughter’s characters are evoked in lyrical sentences, all the more plangent as, for Alice, words and meaning drift away from her: “She does not remember what she ate for dinner last night, or when she last took her medicine. She does not remember to drink enough water. She does not remember to comb her hair.” Shortly, she will lose her freedom too, as she is moved to Belavista, a ‘long-term, for-profit memory residence’ for the ‘next and final’ phase of her journey.

Otsuka’s intention and Alice’s destination are never hidden, the novel’s prose is never excessive, yet this narrative delivers immense power, in both its specificity and wider relevance. As the pool was a place of community and togetherness, so the Belavista is a site of separate trajectories, each patient traversing a path of lesser connection and loss, into isolation and silence.

Other novels of Alzheimer’s and associated dementias (Alice has Pick’s disease, relatively rare) exist, some featuring central characters named Alice* – but Otsuka’s immaculate understatement renders afresh the ghastly transitions of the experience, as well as the wider repercussions. Alice may fade but her after-image will not be so easily expunged.

*Still Alice by Lisa Genova
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This book was a beautiful, thoughtful exploration of aging, memory loss, tragedy inside a community that anyone outside just wouldn't understand and of course, swimming. The book was divided into four chapters, with a large portion of the book focused on a group of people who swim at a particular pool -- and who eventually see a crack in their pool. The crack causes all sorts of dramatic introspection and the author does an incredible job weaving a variety of experiences together. The novel was such an in-depth exploration of swimming and those who regularly swim laps, with all their different personalities, reasons for swimming, and lives above the ground. The second half of the book focuses on dementia and is incredible powerful. A beautiful novel indeed!

Thank you to NetGalley and Knopf for this gifted copy in exchange for an honest review.
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Thank you so much to Net Galley, the publisher, and the author for providing this beautiful book for my review. This book is just so beautiful. This will stay with me for a long time to come. It’s a beautiful story of mother/daughter relationships, coping with growing older, and coping with parents aging as well. I suggest reading this book without knowing too much about it beforehand. I did that and enjoyed the ride immensely. I highly recommend this book for anyone caring for aging parents. Thank you again to Net Galley, the publisher, and author. This is such a powerful work of literature.
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The first (fairly long) chapter of this book works as a brilliant stand-alone short story that should be read by anyone who has ever swam laps. Otsuka absolutely nails every aspect of swimming laps and the different types of people who swim laps. The book eventually focuses on one of the swimmers, a Japanese-American woman with dementia. The first two chapters actually left me confused as to where the book was leading. The woman's story is interesting (and sad.) This is a short book so even if you only end up getting it to read the first chapter, you might as well read the whole thing.
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This is a genuine heartbreaker of a short novel, especially for one whose storytelling approach is so elliptical and enumerative. Otsuka's prose style is impeccably precise and minimalistic, accumulating into five chapters which are unsifted piles of Post-It Notes with different narrative frames whose foci draw ever tighter.

The novel begins as a Greek chorus in the 1st-person plural, voicing the collective observations of the regular lap swimmers at an underground Californian university pool: a multicultural mosaic people from all walks of life. When the authorities permanently close the pool after a series of scientifically inexplicable cracks emerge in its bottom, this community suddenly evaporates, leaving one of the dozens of swimmers, an elderly Japanese-American woman named Emily, bereft.

It isn't until about 2/5 of the way into the novel that Otsuka shifts from multi-perspectival pointillism to an extreme closeup, and that we realize that Alice has been the novel's central figure all along. (Have you seen the video of a gorilla playing basketball, designed to illustrate the psychological phenomenon of selective attention? That's the closest analogy to this astonishing shift in perspective that Otsuka masterfully pulls off here.)

Without a meaningful way to punctuate and structure her time, Alice's inner life subsides into dementia, as observed by her daughter, a middle-aged novelist who might or might not be an autofictional stand-in for Otsuka. As Alice's world shrinks ever further, and she moves out of her house into a memory-care nursing home, the novelist sifts through what she knows (and will never know) about her mother's life, and all the life stories her mother will no longer remember: her childhood in an internment camp, her long and contented marriage, the death of her first child as an infant, the loss of the great love of her life, her experiences as an Asian-American mother in the Bay Area suburbs.

This was an extremely unsentimental account of a beloved parent's decline, written by her adult child with whom she had a complicated but loving relationship, and all the more powerful for it.

Thanks to Netgalley and Knopf for providing me with an ARC in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.
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Oh that crack! So much symbolism in the crack in the pool and the "crack" in Alice's brain. This is a beautifully told story of a mother- daughter relationship as well as the heart break of dementia.
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A dazzling, ambitious read- THE SWIMMERS proves Julie Otsuka is a master of character and diamond-sharp sentences. From its opening pages, the choral-voiced "we" of the narrator(s) lures you into the pool...until you find yourself in the liquid facts and faces of the world of a woman swept up in the dizzying currents of dementia. A fiercely compelling novel, one you'll read in one sitting, because it is impossible to put down. Superb. Simply superb.
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I read a majority of this book at a coffee shop. Emerson string quartet played in the background and that’s what reading so much of this book was like, a beautiful piece of music that flowed seamlessly, picking up in parts and slowing down in order to savor the moment. Definitely more experimental as the second part goes into the mind of Alice. I enjoyed the first part but was a little lost/ bored after the pool stuff. Overall enjoyable, albeit heartbreaking. 


I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All expressed opinions are my own and do not reflect any stance or position held by the author or publisher. This did not affect my rating or review in any way.
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This might already be on my working Best of 2022 list! Was happy to include this novel in February’s Novel Encounters, my regular column highlighting the month’s most anticipated fiction. (In Zoomer magazine’s Zed Book Club section.)
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Oh, this book. It is precious and perfect, and came to me at just the right time as I witness my own mom and her day in and day out descent into dementia. I've already begun talking it up with fellow readers, for this is novel not to be missed. The writing is crystal clear and gorgeous, and so personal. I gained such clarity and insight into what my own loved one must be experiencing. This is perfect fiction, walking in hand with fact and experience, lighting the way for this reader. I love this book. Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for providing me with an advanced reader copy. 
#netgalley #TheSwimmers #julieotsuka
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Once I started this book, I couldn't put it down-it was mesmerizing. I am a swimmer myself, so I thought all the descriptions of the pool and the swimmers were spot on. Everything that happens to Alice is definitely sad, but is written in a way that almost makes you feel connected to her and her family. This book was very different than the type of books I usually read, and I am glad I was given the opportunity to read it.
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Otsuka has written three books, around a decade apart. She is one of those authors with such a distinctive writing style, that her books are easily recognized. Her last wasn't a favorite, I compared to to Green Eggs and Ham, not in subject matter but in stylistic endeavour. Nonthless, her books, intrigue me, she writes slim books all with a different subject. This one is as the cover shows, about swimming. 

The first part follows her collective we voice, showcasing a group of swimmers at a local pool. She describes why they swim, how they swim, what they get from swimming. This daily exercise means alot to these swimmers as apparently does the rules and sameness. That is until a crack appears a crack appears in one of the lanes. Their reactions and actions took after the crack appears, follows. None of these people are named except one swimmer named Alice. Alice, who is allowed to swim an extra life. So far, this first section follows her previous books.

But then, the second and we learn why Alice is named. What now follows becomes personal, and it is poignant, and heartbreaking. Mother, daughter, husband, Alice a woman who is mentally deteriorating. This part sounds like it might be a fictional memoir and I thought, though I may be wrong, that this is her mother/daughter story.
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I found this book to be exquisite and so cleverly constructed. The subject matter is heartbreaking and the author balances delicately between rage, confusion, grief and regret. What seems at first to be a short book about very little is ultimately a nuanced and gorgeous exploration of losing a loved one who has also lost herself.
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It's difficult to review a book as heartfelt and true as The Swimmers.  Julie Otsuka has written a masterpiece that will be with me forever,

The novel is about Alice, a woman with Pick's disease, a type of dementia.  The narrative follows the relationship between Alice and her daughter as Alice's disease progresses.  The daughter is a writer and the novel has some of the aspects of the best memoirs.

This short novel starts with a chapter about swimmers in an underground pool, probably a YMCA.  Each swimmer obeys the pool's unspoken rules and keeps to the same lane every day.  They are happy to be away from the hustle and bustle of 'the'outside'' because in the pool everything is quiet and peaceful, perfect for all the swimmers.  One day, however, a crack appears at the bottom of the pool and this is horribly upsetting to the swimmers.  What can it be and what caused it? As the book progresses, I found it a clear metaphor for the beginning of Alice's demise, the crack in her mind so to speak.

The next chapter, Diem Perdidi, is a short story, one I believe that Ms. Otsuka has previously published.  It is about the progression of her mother's dementia as her daughter looks on.  Diem Perdidi, translatesd something like 'the lost day', is beautifully rendered as is the profound sense of loss it conveys.

Ultimately, Alice is sent to reside in a long-term care facility that is regimented, cold, and like many medical facilities, caring more about the profit than the patient.

I loved the parts of the book that explored the daughter's relationship with Alice, especially her distance from her mother since leaving home for college.  Alice sounds like a powerhouse in her youth but it is easy to see how fractious a mother/daughter relationship might have been.

Ms. Otsuka writes like no other author.  She is unique in her style which I found mesmerizing and lyrical.  The book never slows down.  It rides, like the wind, on the beauty of the author's words.  Her style reminded me of music, with its repetitions and short rifs.  The composers Erik Satie and Philip Glass come to mind. This will be one of my top 10 books of 2022 and one of my favorite novels of all time.
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I'm a huge fan of Julile Otsuka's writing style. Her novels are short and to the point, yet always leave me with a lingering ache. They are emotional, heartbreaking, and real without any excessive emoting or flowery descriptive language. This one is a perfect example of her incredible talent.

The pool in town attracts a wide variety of people who swim on a regular schedule. Although few names are given, we get to know them by their swim style and their habits. When a crack appears in the pool, it portends a change that has an impact on everyone, especially Alice who is battling dementia.

This book is really in two parts -- the pool and Alice. While not a straight narrative plot (with an introduction, building tension, and climax), nor is there typical exposition and dialogue, the story is still very clear. I think this is the brilliance of Otsuka's writing. I'm sure some will be put off by the writing style, and it is different. Otsuka writes in short seemingly random sentences that (at first) do not even seem connected. Some will find it distracting, but I fell the style is what adds to the impact of the story. I found myself thinking about this book long after I finished it. This would be a perfect "book club" selection.
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It is hard to convey just how much I loved this book.  Through her gorgeous lyrical style author Otsuka takes the reader into the deterioration of a proud woman whose childhood was scarred by her internment on YS soil during WWII. Using the metaphor of the displacement of a group of devoted swimmers when their pool develops mysterious cracks, Otsuka gives us a searing portrayal of Alice’s deterioration from the beginning of the cracks in her mind to the end of her life.  Heartbreaking and so beautifully written.  Highly recommended.
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I was so excited to read another work by Julie Otsuka, who has this lyrical but powerful style of storytelling.
This short novel focuses on a group of swimmers who have bonded at the pool each morning. Their world is thrown into chaos when the pool develops a crack, and they are no longer able to swim. 
The story becomes heartbreaking as readers realize it is primarily told from the perspective of Alice who is slowly losing herself to dementia. 
I absolutely loved this story!
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This is one of the best books that I have read in some time.  I felt that the dynamic and parallels drawn from the writing were intriguing and really resonated strongly for me.  The lyricism of the written word just flowed so easily and relentlessly from subject to subject.  I was captivated by this book and definitely want to read more from this author.  Thanks for the ARC, NetGalley.  This was a stellar read.
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A beautifully written and succinct book about the life of a swimming pool segues into one of it's swimmer's  downward spiral into dementia
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A very short but extremely powerful, heartbreaking ,emotional read.The first part deals with swimmers who compulsively swim every day in an underground swimming pool. Having been a “ slow swimmer” myself for years in the past, every aspect of the rituals and the description of the various types of swimmers (the speed demons, the triathletes, the elderly there for their aching backs and knees and old age ailments) was spot on. Among them is Alice, an elderly Japanese-American woman in the early stages of dementia. Suddenly their lives and rituals are disrupted by the development of cracks and the subsequent closure of the pool. This, for me, serves as a metaphor for the remainder of the read, as Alice sleeps deeper and deeper into dementia and needs 24 hour nursing home care. I don’t know if Otsuka’s family experienced this personally , but I can tell you that she captures everything perfectly, from her depiction of the care home and the financial burden on the family, Alice’s stages of decline,the emotions of her children,in particular her daughter, and most poignantly, that of her husband.
Having experienced this personally, there were moments that were extremely painful to read,and multiple times hit so hard that I wanted to stop reading. A short, but very very powerful read.
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