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The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka: staggeringly beautiful

A woman with dementia and her daughter become the focus of this wise novel

The Swimmers
The Swimmers
Author: Julie Otsuka
ISBN-13: 978-0241543887
Publisher: Fig Tree
Guideline Price: £12.99

The narrative “we” of Julie Otsuka’s novel belongs to a group of dedicated lane swimmers who each day slip into the underground local pool, sloughing off the failure, mediocrity, limps and wildfires they experience on land – for a brief interlude we are at home in the world. Swimming in their lanes, in their element, ungainly bodies are made elegant, agile, assured.

When a crack appears at the bottom of lane four, the swimmers sense its import, a faultline in their – our – existence. They forensically investigate causes, from principles of engineering to moral philosophy. “There’s something horribly wrong with this earth,” says Charlotte in lane six, grasping the larger existential metaphor. The cracks multiply and the pool closes. “Everything is loss,” another swimmer says.

From the collective group, Otsuka eloquently singles out one, a swimmer with dementia called Alice. The point of view shifts, now narrated by “you”, Alice’s daughter, who recounts her mother’s life through fragments of memories both prosaic and profound.

The narration here is structured by repeating the clauses Alice remembers and does not remember, repetitions creating rhythmic incantation brimming with both authenticity and heart. She remembers the combination lock of her first bicycle. She remembers the loss of her firstborn daughter, whose body, with its “very unusual heart”, was donated to science at a doctor’s request. She does not remember why they didn’t just bury her. She remembers the words for “I’m sorry” in Japanese.


From these sparse, disconnected vignettes, Otsuka conjures a life, including what Alice remembers in the context of historical forgetting. As a child, her family was incarcerated with other Japanese-Americans in an internment camp in Utah, what the narrator refers to as “that first frenzy of forgetting”, during the second World War. “She remembers the taste of dust.” These prison camps were the subject of Otsuka’s first novel, When the Emperor Was Divine.

At the heart of The Swimmers is the daughter, writing and remembering when her mother cannot, and her own sense of arriving too late. “You broke her heart,” she writes (ostensibly to herself).

We, us, she, you – Otsuka’s multiple pronouns and points of view blur distinctions. Her wisdom is staggeringly beautiful, implicating each of us.

Una Mannion

Una Mannion is a writer and teacher. Her first novel, A Crooked Tree, was published by Faber & Faber in 2021