Five Things About... The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka

This short novel spends the first half devoted to a community swimming pool that must close after it develops several unexplained cracks, and the second half on one of the swimmers, Alice. Alice’s dementia worsens and her family ends up placing her in a memory care center, where she slowly declines.

This is my first Otsuka novel, so I’m not sure if the others are like this, but her syntax is so attuned to her content. I actually used a passage with my students last week, since they often struggle to articulate the effect of sentence structure on the reading experience. 

I really enjoyed coming up with different theories on the mysterious cracks in the swimming pool. A neurological metaphor? The cracks represented synapses that were forming in the pool instead of Alice’s brain? A representation of our anxiety as we spiral into a constant web of worry? A way to show the inability of experts to form cohesive explanations? 

I think the book captures what it’s like to make the decision to place a loved one in a memory-care home in such a way where the detached, clinical tone makes the reader feel the emotion that the prose explicitly lacks. It also points out the business side of such facilities- at the end of the day it’s always about the bottom line.

The reminder to find something or somewhere to escape life’s stresses is broadcasted from the very first page. Life is hard and busy- we are all entitled to have a place where we can forget about our worries for a little while a few times a week. Maybe it’s swimming, or running, reading, or painting. Otsuka shows us that we have more control over our lives and are happier when we have an outlet (it wasn’t a coincidence that Alice’s dementia worsened when the pool shut down).

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