The Swimmers

Jane’s Pick: The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka

This book surprised me – I began the book thinking it would be a quirky book about a community swimming pool. And it is for a while, but then the book shifts to the personal and becomes a heartbreaking, poignant story about a mother fading into dementia and a daughter’s grief in losing her.

The beginning of the book is a story about a community pool – where we are introduced to mostly nameless swimmers and learn the “rules” of the pool – both the implied as well as the official.  We see the swimmers collectively – but also see glimpses of each as individuals. Until one day a crack appears in the pool and the tone of the book becomes like a formal broadcast of a litany of experts investigating the situation.  Finally, it is decided – the pool needs to close for good – and from here the novel morphs again and becomes the story of Alice – an elderly lady losing her mind to dementia.

There is so much emotional range in such a short, poetic book.  The book is so expertly worded – many times you aren’t sure where the author is going with a thought until the end of the paragraph and then, when it is all pulled together, you realize you went deeper and farther than expected (through miscarriages, and internment camps and the guilt of a grown daughter who let distance and time cool her relationship with her mother).  Much like swimming repetitious laps in a community pool, there is a feeling of losing a sense of time and place. Each chapter is told from different points of views and perspectives – from we to they to she to you…telling the story from different angles; much as real life can shift a moment of time through different lenses.

This book is not for everyone, but for me – recently going through losing my Mom to Alzheimer’s, it was a really cathartic read.  Yes, I cried my eyes out – the author hit so close to home, but the release was good for my soul.  That someone could so poetically articulate the fading of a life; to use their own grief to connect with others.

And it brought back memories of my Mom – how lucky I was to have such a unique and strong Mother. Even in her last years, as the Alzheimer’s took so much of her, her essence still came through.  And how we all swim through life – seemingly in our individual worlds, yet intimately connected to each other; to the collective.