The swimmers

Julie Otsuka, 1962-

Book - 2022

"A novel portraying a group of dedicated recreational swimmers and what happens when a crack appears at the bottom of their community pool"--

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Bookmobile Fiction FICTION/Otsuka, Julie Due Aug 1, 2024
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Psychological fiction
Domestic fiction
New York : Alfred A. Knopf 2022.
Main Author
Julie Otsuka, 1962- (author)
First edition
Item Description
"This is a Borzoi book"--Title page verso.
Physical Description
175 pages ; 20 cm
Contents unavailable.
Review by Booklist Review

Award-winning, best-selling Otsuka is averaging one book per decade, making each exquisite title exponentially more precious. Here she creates a stupendous collage of small moments that results in an extraordinary examination of the fragility of quotidian human relationships. Initially set in an underground pool, it voices a collective "we" that reports the comings and goings of the titular swimmers, regulars who uphold all regulations, who have established their schedules, lanes, and paces with comforting familiarity. A crack in the pool's bottom gets noticed, examined, almost forgotten until it causes immutable upheaval. Some never swim again--most notably Alice, for whom the water was an essential haven: "Up there . . . I'm just another little old lady. But down here, at the pool, I'm myself." Alice, "a retired lab technician now in the early stages of dementia," is the first of Otsuka's few characters identified by name. Her story aboveground is a polyphonic reveal through her lingering yet fading memories, the care center that she can never leave, and her estranged daughter, who based her second novel "on the most painful and difficult years of [Alice's] life." Alice survived that "first frenzy of forgetting" as an imprisoned Japanese American during WWII, and now a final erasure looms. Once more, Otsuka creates an elegiac, devastating masterpiece.

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Otsuka (The Buddha in the Attic) delivers a quick and tender story of a group of swimmers who cope with the disruption of their routines in various ways. The regulars at a pool range in age, ability, and swimming habits, and are connected by an incessant need to swim. When a crack shows up in the deep end of lane four, the swimmers all grow nervous about the pool's future. While the "nonswimmers" in their lives (also known as "crack deniers") dismiss the swimmers' concerns, the swimmers collectively discover how the crack "quietly lodges itself, unbeknownst to you, in the recesses of your mind"--except for cheerful Alice, who has swum in the pool for 35 years and now has dementia. Some members stop going to the pool out of fear, while others try to get close to the crack. Just before the pool is closed, Alice determines to get in "Just one more lap." Otsuka cleverly uses various points of view: the swimmers' first-person-plural narration effectively draws the reader into their world, while the second person keenly conveys the experiences of Alice's daughter, who tries to recoup lost time with her mother after Alice loses hold of her memories and moves into a memory care facility. It's a brilliant and disarming dive into the characters' inner worlds. (Feb.)

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Review by Library Journal Review

Distinguished best-selling novelist Otsuka's (Buddha in the Attic) latest is an introspective work that examines life's journeys from a multitude of perspectives. Using second- and third-person narrative, the novel opens with a look at the regular visitors to a local public swimming pool and their day-to-day habits and accomplishments, with brief mention of their names and occupations. The story then shifts from the swimmers to the discovery of a crack in the pool, its effects on the swimmers, and the pool's eventual closure. The final chapters focus on Alice, a retired lab technician with dementia, briefly mentioned in the novel's opening, whose condition has worsened to the point that she now lives in a long-term care residence. Otsuka's spare, dreamlike writing offers readers a deeply touching exploration of the impact on Alice's Japanese American family (particularly her daughter) of caring for a loved one with dementia. VERDICT Otsuka is noteworthy for her skilled storytelling and her ability to immerse readers in her characters' emotional journeys. Essential reading for those already familiar with Otsuka's work; those who haven't read her are likely to be duly impressed.--Shirley Quan

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Review by Kirkus Book Review

Having concentrated on one family in her first novel, then eschewed individual protagonists for a collective "we" in her second, Otsuka now blends the two approaches, shifting from an almost impersonal, wide-lens view of society to an increasingly narrow focus on a specific mother-daughter relationship. The book begins as tart social comedy. A narrative "we" represents various swimmers frequenting an underground community pool. A microcosm of America, they remain mostly anonymous, although a few names are dropped in from time to time as a kind of punctuation. The swimmers are fleshed out as a group by multiple lists detailing a wide range of occupations and social roles, motivations to swim, swimming styles, and eventually reactions to a mysterious crack that appears suddenly on the pool floor. Initially dismissed as inconsequential by the experts, the crack morphs, Covid-like, into more and more cracks until panicky authorities announce the pool will close altogether. What seems a minor act of grace on the final day of operation--the lifeguard generously allows a memory-impaired woman named Alice to swim one extra lap--leaves the reader unprepared for the sharp swerve the novel now makes. Alice takes center stage, her cognitive and eventual physical deterioration viewed from multiple angles. The narrative voice is now addressing itself to "you," Alice's daughter, a Japanese American novelist with an obvious resemblance to the author, observing Alice's decline in slightly removed, writerly detail as Alice's memories drift from random, repetitive, and oddly specific to more random, less frequent, and increasingly vague. Institutional care follows, with the new "we" of the narrative voice addressing Alice in cold bureaucratic lingo that represents the nursing facility in a snarky, predictable, and disappointingly un-nuanced sketch of institutional care. As Alice fades further, the daughter returns. She berates herself for the ways she failed her mother. But dredging up her own memories, she also begins to recognize the love her parents felt for each other and for her. The combination of social satire with an intimate portrait of loss and grief is stylistically ambitious and deeply moving. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

The Underground Pool The pool is located deep underground, in a large cavernous chamber many feet beneath the streets of our town. Some of us come here because we are injured, and need to heal. We suffer from bad backs, fallen arches, shattered dreams, broken hearts, anxiety, melancholia, anhedonia, the usual aboveground afflictions. Others of us are employed at the college nearby and prefer to take our lunch breaks down below, in the waters, far away from the harsh glares of our colleagues and screens. Some of us come here to escape, if only for an hour, our disappointing marriages on land. Many of us live in the neighborhood and simply love to swim. One of us--­Alice, a retired lab technician now in the early stages of dementia--­comes here because she always has. And even though she may not remember the combination to her locker or where she put her towel, the moment she slips into the water she knows what to do. Her stroke is long and fluid, her kick is strong, her mind clear. "Up there," she says, "I'm just another little old lady. But down here, at the pool, I'm myself." MOST DAYS AT THE POOL, we are able to leave our troubles on land behind. Failed painters become elegant breaststrokers. Untenured professors slice, shark-­like, through the water, with breathtaking speed. The newly divorced HR Manager grabs a faded red Styrofoam board and kicks with impunity. The downsized adman floats, otter-­like, on his back, as he stares up at the clouds on the painted pale blue ceiling, thinking, for the first time all day long, of nothing. Let it go. Worriers stop worrying. Bereaved widows cease to grieve. Out-­of-­work actors unable to get traction above ground glide effortlessly down the fast lane, in their element, at last. I've arrived! And for a brief interlude we are at home in the world. Bad moods lift, tics disappear, memories reawaken, migraines dissolve, and slowly, slowly, the chatter in our minds begins to subside as stroke after stroke, length after length, we swim. And when we are finished with our laps we hoist ourselves up out of the pool, dripping and refreshed, our equilibrium restored, ready to face another day on land. UP ABOVE THERE ARE wildfires, smog alerts, epic droughts, paper jams, teachers' strikes, insurrections, revolutions, blisteringly hot days that never seem to let up (Massive "Heat Dome" Permanently Stalled over Entire West Coast), but down below, at the pool, it is always a comfortable eighty-­one degrees. The humidity is sixty-­five percent. The visibility is clear. The lanes are orderly and calm. The hours, though limited, are adequate for our needs. Some of us arrive shortly upon waking, fresh towels draped over our shoulders and rubber goggles in hand, ready for our eight a.m. swim. Others of us come down in the late afternoon, after work, when it is still sunny and bright, and when we reemerge it is night. The traffic has thinned. The backhoes have quieted. The birds have all gone away. And we are grateful to have avoided, once more, the falling of dusk. It's the one time I can't bear being alone. Some of us come to the pool religiously, five times a week, and begin to feel guilty if we miss even a day. Some of us come every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at noon. One of us comes a half hour before closing and by the time she changes into her suit and gets into the water it's time to get out. Another of us is dying of Parkinson's disease and just comes when he can. If I'm here then you know I'm having a good day. THE RULES AT THE POOL, though unspoken, are adhered to by all (we are our own best enforcers): no running, no shouting, no children allowed. Circle swimming only (direction counterclockwise, always keeping to the right of the painted black line). All Band-­Aids must be removed. No one who has not taken the compulsory two-­minute shower (hot water, soap) in the locker room may enter the pool. No one who has an unexplained rash or open wound may enter the pool (the menstruating among us, however, are excepted). No one who is not a member of the pool may enter the pool. Guests are permitted (no more than one per member at a time), but for a nominal daily fee. Bikinis are permitted but not encouraged. Bathing caps are required. Cell phones are forbidden. Proper pool etiquette must be observed at all times. If you cannot keep up the pace you must stop at the end of your lane to let the swimmer behind you pass. If you want to pass someone from behind you must tap them once on the foot to warn them. If you accidentally bump into another swimmer you must check to make sure that they are all right. Be nice to Alice. Obey the lifeguard at all times. Turn your head at regular intervals and remember, of course, to breathe. IN OUR "REAL LIVES" up above, we are overeaters, underachievers, dog walkers, cross-­dressers, compulsive knitters (Just one more row), secret hoarders, minor poets, trailing spouses, twins, vegans, "Mom," a second-­rate fashion designer, an undocumented immigrant, a nun, a Dane, a cop, an actor who just plays a cop on TV ("Officer Mahoney"), a winner of the green card lottery, a two-­time nominee for Outstanding Professor of the Year, a nationally ranked go player, three guys named George (George the podi­atrist, George the nephew of the disgraced financier, George the former welterweight Golden Gloves boxer), two Roses (Rose, and the Other Rose), one Ida, one Alice, one self-­described nobody (Don't mind me), one former member of the SDS, two convicted felons, addicted, enabled, embattled, embittered, out of print, out of luck (I think I just seroconverted), in the twilight of lackluster real estate careers, in the middle of long and protracted divorces (It's year seven), infertile, in our prime, in a rut, in a rush, in remission, in the third week of chemo, in deep and unrelenting emotional despair (You never get used to it), but down below, at the pool, we are only one of three things: fast-­lane people, medium-­lane people or the slow. THE FAST LANE PEOPLE are the alpha people of the pool. They are high-­strung and aggressive and supremely confident in their stroke. They look excellent in their swimsuits. Anatomically, they tend to be mesomorphs who carry an extra pound or two of fat for enhanced flotation. They have broad shoulders and long torsos and are equally divided between women and men. Whenever they kick, the water churns and boils. It is best to stay out of their way. They are natural-­born athletes blessed with both rhythm and speed and have an uncanny feel for the water that the rest of us lack. THE MEDIUM-LANE PEOPLE are visibly more relaxed than their fast-­lane brethren. They come in all sizes and shapes and have long ago given up any dreams they may have once harbored of swimming in a faster and better lane. No matter how hard they try, it's not going to happen, and they know it. Every once in a while, however, one of them will succumb to a bout of furious kicking, a sudden and involuntary windmilling of the arms and legs as though they thought, for a moment, that they could somehow defy their fate. But the moment never lasts for long. Legs soon tire out, strokes shorten, elbows droop, lungs begin to ache, and after a length or two they return to their normal everyday pace. That's just the way it is, they say to themselves. And then amiably, affably--­Just pulling your leg, guys!--­they swim on. THE SLOW-LANE PEOPLE tend to be older men who have recently retired, women over the age of forty-­nine, water walkers, aqua joggers, visiting economists from landlocked emerging third-­world countries where, we have heard, they are only just now learning how to swim (It's the same with their driving), and the occasional patient in rehab. Be kind to them. Make no assumptions. There are many reasons they might be here: arthritis, sciatica, insomnia, a brand-­new titanium hip, aching feet worn out from a lifetime of pounding on dry land. "My mother told me never to wear high heels!" The pool is their sanctuary, their refuge, the one place on earth they can go to escape from their pain, for it is only down below, in the waters, that their symptoms begin to abate. The moment I see that painted black line I feel fine. Excerpted from The Swimmers: A Novel by Julie Otsuka All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.