Tuesday, May 30, 2023

A Sense of Loss

The Swimmers
The Swimmers 

“{We] glide serenely through the water, safe in our knowledge that we are nothing more than a blurry peripheral shape glimpsed in passing through the foggy, tinted goggles of the swimmer in the next lane.”   
― Julie Otsuka, The Swimmers

This is a story of a group of swimmers who, except for their individual routines (slow lane, medium lane, rapid lane) and the comfort each person finds in their morning or afternoon laps, they are strangers to one another. However, as a rift opens up in the pool's bottom, they are abandoned in a forgiving world without solace or consolation.

Alice, one of these swimmers, is gradually losing her memory. The pool served as Alice's last line of defense against the dementia that was advancing on her. Without the support of her fellow swimmers and the stability of her daily laps, she is thrown into disarray and turmoil and is reminded of her early years and the Japanese American internment camp where she spent the war. When Alice's estranged daughter unexpectedly re-enters her mother's life, she sees the tragically abrupt fall of her mother. 

The narrative is a compelling and enduring work yet from a modern artist, told in hypnotic, incantatory writing. It is a searing, intimate story of mothers and daughters, and the pangs of loss. Otsuka's style is somewhat subdued: She constructs lists and litanies that initially seem modest, even mundane, but by the time the paragraph comes to a close, you are astounded by what she has accomplished. I was moved by the lovely detail... 

In this work, scenes repeat in the same way that the mind does or the way that swimmers swim laps, rather than just accumulating. These accumulations add up to a terrible sense of loss and being too late. The Swimmers is a beautiful book that mimics a companion for a time of tedium and disorder, when death is as real as it is unimaginable.


Harvee said...

I started but did not finish this book, but now I've read your review I am thinking of reborrowing it from the library. The crack in the pool puzzled me when I read the book summary at first but now you have clarified it, thanks.

James said...

Hello Harvee,
Thanks for your comment. The introductory chapter is clarified somewhat by the subsequent trajectory of the narrative. Hope you enjoy continuing your read of this short but powerful story. If you like it you might enjoy her previous novel, The Buddha in the Attic.