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The Swimmers

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From the award winning author of The Buddha in the Attic and When the Emperor Was Divine, a tour de force of economy, precision, and emotional power about what happens to a group of obsessed recreational swimmers when a crack appears at the bottom of their local pool.

The swimmers are unknown to each other except through their private routines (slow lane, fast lane), and the solace each takes in their morning or afternoon laps. But when a crack appears at the bottom of the pool, they are cast out into an unforgiving world without comfort or relief.

One of these swimmers is Alice, who is slowly losing her memory. For Alice, the pool was a final stand against the darkness of her encroaching dementia. Without the fellowship of other swimmers and the routine of her daily laps she is plunged into dislocation and chaos, swept into memories of her childhood and the Japanese internment camp in which she spent the war. Narrated by Alice's daughter, who witnesses her stark and devastating decline, The Swimmers is a searing, intimate story of mothers and daughters, and the sorrows of implacable loss, written in spellbinding, incantatory prose.

The most commanding and unforgettable work yet from a modern master.

192 pages, Hardcover

First published February 22, 2022

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About the author

Julie Otsuka

9 books1,080 followers
Julie Otsuka was born and raised in California. After studying art as an undergraduate at Yale University she pursued a career as a painter for several years before turning to fiction writing at age 30. She received her MFA from Columbia. She is a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Asian American Literary Award, and the American Library Association Alex Award.

Her first novel, When the Emperor Was Divine , is about the internment of a Japanese-American family during World War II. It was a New York Times Notable Book, a San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of the Year, and a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers finalist. The book is based on Otsuka’s own family history: her grandfather was arrested by the FBI as a suspected spy for Japan the day after Pearl Harbor was bombed, and her mother, uncle and grandmother spent three years in an internment camp in Topaz, Utah. When the Emperor Was Divine has been translated into six languages and sold more than 250,000 copies. The New York Times called it “a resonant and beautifully nuanced achievement” and USA Today described it as “A gem of a book and one of the most vivid history lessons you’ll ever learn.” It has been assigned to all incoming freshmen at more than 35 colleges and universities and is a regular ‘Community Reads’ selection across the US.

Her second novel, The Buddha in the Attic , is about a group of young Japanese ‘picture brides’ who sailed to America in the early 1900s to become the wives of men they had never met and knew only by their photographs. It has been nominated for the 2011 National Book Award.

Otsuka’s fiction has been published in Granta and Harper’s and read aloud on PRI’s “Selected Shorts” and BBC Radio 4’s “Book at Bedtime.” She lives in New York City, where she writes every afternoon in her neighborhood café.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 4,534 reviews
Profile Image for Barbara**catching up!.
1,397 reviews806 followers
June 2, 2022
Immediately after finishing Julie Otsuka’s “The Swimmers” I began thinking of who I could recommend/force to read this novel. From the start, I was fascinated in Otsuka’s rendering of a group of regular swimmers who start their day at the pool. For anyone who is an avid swimmer or avid workout person, you can relate to Otsucka’s story.

Otsuka uses the first-person-plural, which is like a Greek chorus, narrating the daily activities of the swimmers who frequent this underground community pool. “There are those who would call our devotion to the pool excessive, if not pathological.” Well, I’m a devoted gym person, and I’ve been accused of such pathological behavior, as many staunch workout enthusiasts have. The chorus assigns pet names to all the members such as sidestroker Sydney, new member Alex, and metaphysician Gwen. But they are also known for the lane they swim in like patent attorney Liane of Lane two. This idea of a community formed by exercise and time is very real, and those of us who have been part of a rag-tag community will relate. This is the truly fun part of the story.

For drama, a crack appears in lane four upending the group. The internal scuttle-butt is hilarious. There is the “why us”, and “what did we do wrong to deserve this.” Fear and alarm occur, gossip ensues.

Throughout the story, one member, Alice is mentioned more than others. The reader soon learns that Alice is suffering from some form of dementia. For example, “You wake up one day and you can’t even remember your own name (It’s Alice).”

The first half of the story is fun and chuckle worthy. I related to all the pool groupies and their classifications and the chit-chat that ensues. The second half, well, poor Alice.

The second half is Alice remembering her past, mostly all those sad and tragic memories. Alice’s unnamed adult daughter enters the story. The two are estranged, and the daughter encounters regret and sadness. There’s a feeling of loss and sorrow of what was and what should have been.

I absolutely loved the beautifully written version of adult athletes who unexpectedly form a community of those they see consistently through the year. The second half is more emotional. It’s a story of a woman who is losing her ability to think just when her adult daughter might be ready to form a bond. It becomes a story of a mother and a daughter and those things that neither understood nor knew about each other.

This is a tiny novel that packs an emotional punch. I am in awe that Otsuka wrote an almost short story, around 175 pages, and packed so much sentiment. This is one of my favorite 2022 novels.

5 glowing stars!!!
Profile Image for Hannah W.
50 reviews4 followers
March 11, 2022
I think I maybe just read a 200 page limerick? This book reads like three short stories instead of one novel. I don’t think that the description of the story on the back of the book captures what actually happens at all. The only reason I kept reading was because it was so short I figured I might as well get to the end. The only redeeming quality was the middle section where the author uses some pretty dark humour and casts an interesting light on what it means for an older adult to move into a long term care facility. Otherwise this book was weird and honestly two thirds of it have nothing to do with swimming or swimmers at all. There are clearly metaphorical components to the idea of the crack and the loss of role and routine, but I didn’t have the mental energy to sift through that while trying to discern what the heck was going on. I may have missed the point, but I Don’t think I would recommend!!
Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
4,010 reviews610 followers
February 24, 2022
“We tell ourselves, we’re gonna get through this.
But then a moment later, we’ll think, ‘My life is wrecked’”.

An Abbreviated Review….every emoji is part of the story in “The Swimmers”….. look carefully….and you’ll figure much out.
😎👙🩲🥽🧬💦🏊‍♂️🏊🏊‍♀️🔪〰️😕🔍🩺💊💉😩❓👀 💔⚖️💋
🥡🥠🥠 🎉🥲🌳🍎☕️🥂🥢💍👩‍❤️‍💋‍👨🍼⛑🫐🧠 ⚰️💐🐢 🇯🇵 🧵🪡🐾🍄🌝🌈⛱🎢🪴🌹 🍫❤️🧑🏻‍🦼👨‍🦽🍸📞💅🏻💄🐜🥚🥚🥚🥚🥚🥚🥚🥚🥚🥚🥚🥚🥭🛁 🛏🖼🛍🎄🚗👚👖🥿🧦👟🧢👜🍵🙏🔑🦻⏰🍌🎶🧮♟📚📝🧁🧃📺🏋️‍♀️🎁🪴🌳😴☔️🧘🏻‍♀️🎄93🪞🎃👻🧺👩🏼‍🦯👩🏽‍🦼🍪☮️🌷🌻🔜🔚🌈❤️

A little longer review….[out of context tidbits]….little droplets of hints into this VERY BEAUTIFUL STYLISTIC and DEEPly……moving novel!!!

Being in the pool is the one time that some people can bear being alone. Some people come to the pool religiously, five times a week, and begin to feel guilty if they miss even a day.
One person is dying from Parkinson’s disease and comes to the pool when he can.
“If I’m here then you know I’m having a good day”.

The Crack….
“At first it is barely visible, a faint dark line just south of the drain and the deep end of Lane four”.

“Many of us, older and no longer eagle-eyed, blind without our glasses, do not see the crack at all”. [sometimes a blessing in my opinion].

Personal share:
I have a ‘deep’ relationship with water, swimming, and swimming pools. Symbolically…(and very real for me)….
‘Pools’ have been my savior since the time I was a toddler. Pools and my sixty-plus years of memories represent pivotal points in my coming-of-age-life.
After my father died, at age four, I spent my summers with my grandparents in Calistoga—swimming all day long in the huge town pool …diving off the high diving board by age five. I scared everyone in my family with each dive.
Even when I was pregnant…. (twice) …four years apart….my pregnancy discipline was swimming 1 mile seven days a week… Both pregnancies.
Even on the morning in which I gave birth, I got my morning swim in at ‘AVAC’ (Almaden Valley Athletic Community). One mile swim a day.
I have taught swimming to both adults & children (including my own starting when they were two ‘weeks’ old). I’m a certified Aqua yoga instructor, and certified Watsu practitioner.
My kids are great swimmers - they were on swim teams and spent summers lifeguarding.
Today …three months shy of turning seventy - there is almost never a day that I’m not in our saline pool….(mostly soaking - reading in my office pool)….a little water exercise….but am no longer swimming laps regularly. Sometimes I do at our local JCC…but not often anymore. Plus…I immediately return to long lap swims on vacations early mornings.
But water, even being near water - the pool and or beach….is a language I speak…
and — such as examine in this book, swimming laps is a great pleasure rejuvenating euphoric high. A little feeling of joyful accomplishment. A private and or social water- community connection
the first half of this book — was all a very familiar language….
The second part of this book was too…..(only more subtly)…..
….. love, sadness, grief, loss…..

“Swimmers” by Julie Otsuka is ABSOLUTELY ANOTHER FAVORITE…..
It’s my second time saying in a very short time….
“I would give 10 stars to this book if I could”.
Profile Image for Traci Thomas.
592 reviews10.5k followers
March 10, 2022
This book is so so so good. The craft is near perfection. The sentences are evocative. It’s tender. It’s funny. It’s clever. It’s progressively emotional. Ugh. I loved this book.
Profile Image for Diane S ☔.
4,782 reviews14.2k followers
February 3, 2022
Otsuka has written three books, around a decade apart. She is one of those authors with such a distinctive writing style, that her books are easily recognized. Her last wasn't a favorite, I compared to to Green Eggs and Ham, not in subject matter but in stylistic endeavour. Nonthless, her books, intrigue me, she writes slim books all with a different subject. This one is as the cover shows, about swimming.

The first part follows her collective we voice, showcasing a group of swimmers at a local pool. She describes why they swim, how they swim, what they get from swimming. This daily exercise means alot to these swimmers as apparently does the rules and sameness. That is until a crack appears a crack appears in one of the lanes. Their reactions and actions took after the crack appears, follows. None of these people are named except one swimmer named Alice. Alice, who is allowed to swim an extra life. So far, this first section follows her previous books.

But then, the second and we learn why Alice is named. What now follows becomes personal, and it is poignant, and heartbreaking. Mother, daughter, husband, Alice a woman who is mentally deteriorating. This part sounds like it might be a fictional memoir and I thought, though I may be wrong, that this is her mother/daughter story.

ARC from Netgalley.
Profile Image for Emi Yoshida.
1,494 reviews85 followers
October 12, 2021
I wanted to label this as experimental literature because the beginning section is so unique and poetic and I felt like I didn't know what I was reading, it was overwhelming and confusing and there was so much going on and I liked it and it made me laugh and I was totally relating to it as a slow lane swimmer myself... but once I realized we were focusing on Alice, the retired lab technician in the early stages of dementia, then I got it. Like getting pierced through the heart, by poignancy. I might not have understood what was going on with the crack in the pool exactly, but afterwards in the section titled Diem Perdidi, when Alice is no longer swimming and we read about everything she still remembers, I could completely appreciate the impact of that crack - along with Julie Otsuka's genius as a writer.

I love the tribute paid to her nisei mother's internment camp experience in this book, as in When the Emperor Was Divine. I just lost my Japanese dad last year, and so much of Alice's advice and commentary reminds me of the way my dad Masatsugu talked and represented the world. I cannot wait to read more by this author.
Profile Image for Brandice.
913 reviews
March 16, 2022
The Swimmers is a book about a group of adults routinely, recreationally swimming at a local indoor community pool but it’s also about life, aging, and family — The book has 3 parts that felt like 2, almost separate, and not in a bad way.

“Most days, at the pool, we are able to leave our troubles on land behind … 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.”

In part 1, readers get a feel for the collective “we” group using the pool who relish temporarily escaping from the other obligations of life. Very little is shared about the group, outside of one, Alice, a woman who is starting to lose her memory. In part 2, readers learn about the next phase of Alice’s life as she transitions to it. In part 3, Alice’s daughter shares the story of their mother daughter relationship.

Though The Swimmers is fictional as far as I can tell, I would not be surprised to learn the story incorporates elements of Otsuka’s own life. It felt realistic and I enjoyed the writing style. A good book though heavy on somber, realities of life topics.
Profile Image for Lisa (NY).
1,550 reviews603 followers
April 13, 2022
[4+] Otsuka's unique style of writing works beautifully in this novel. She starts with a community of swimmers, detailing their relationship to the pool and then narrows in on one swimmer and her daughter. The culmination of everyday facts and lists are rendered like poetry, illuminating Alice's life. The story of Alice's aging, and her diminishment, is so universal. One that we all have observed or fear. It is an achingly sad novel but I loved it anyway.
Profile Image for luce (that loser crying on the n° 2 bus).
1,438 reviews4,052 followers
May 25, 2022
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The first two chapters of The Swimmers, ‘The Underground Pool’ and ‘The Crack’ are highly reminiscent of the author’s acclaimed The Buddha in the Attic. Like that novel The Swimmers at first seems to implement a playful choral ‘we’ as our perspective. The ‘we’ in question are the people who regularly swim at a local pool in an unnamed town. Otsuka details the swimmers’ relationship to the pool and swimming, often poking (gentle) fun at them. While she does often differentiate between the swimmers, contrasting their routines etc., they remain a united entity for much of these chapters. The pool becomes a microcosm of the real world and Otsuka’s satire is particularly effective when a mysterious ‘crack’ appears in the pool, causing confusion and uncertainty among the pool-goers. Some panic and flee, some quit swimming altogether, some begin spreading conspiracy theories about who is behind the crack, some keep on swimming and refuse to look at the crack, and so forth.
The tone is definitely the defining characteristic of these two chapters as the characters are beside the point. They serve a comedic function and their personalities are intentionally kept off the page. Repetition is of course a consequence of employing a choral point of view, especially one that at times comes across as a joke that has gone on too long. These two chapters/stories could have easily been condensed into one and I think it would have made for a more effective and engaging read.

The following chapters/stories revolve around one of the swimmers, but once again the author implements more indirect narrative devices (often there is the ‘you’). The character in question is Alice, a Japanese American woman who shows signs of dementia. While the author does give us an overview of her life and background, by referring to her as ‘you’ or by avoiding using her name she effectively makes Alice into a blank-slate, or perhaps, less of a blank-slate and more of the 'every-elderly-woman', ie. the epitome of the elderly person experiencing memory loss, confusion, and an increased lack of motor skills. Her daughter, who happens to be a writer, too was very much a non-character, as she is often referred to as ‘you’. There was a lack of intimacy and depth in these characters (and their relationship to one another) that diluted the impact of what could have been a potentially poignant story. There is even one chapter from the point of ‘Belavista’ a ‘memory residence’ where Alice is eventually taken to. Here the author wryly points to the way elderly people who are no longer able to live independently and need more help than what their relatives can provide them with are treated by these places (eg the patronizing language).

The specificity with which Otsuka writes about Alice’s ‘dementia’ definitely rang true to life as I am temporarily living with someone who has dementia and boy oh boy it is definitely not a walk in the park watching someone slowly lose their physical and mental capacity. Still, while many moments struck me for their realism, Otsuka's playful tone became a bit jarring and repetitive. I would have liked for this book to have more emotional depth and for characters (any of the characters really) to be more than names on a page. Nevertheless, I encourage prospective readers to make up their own minds about this one!
Profile Image for Jean-Luke.
Author 1 book395 followers
August 29, 2022
Had I discovered Julie Otsuka earlier in my life, I could now have said that I’d waited ten years for this book. But given that I only read and loved her previous two books in the last few years, my ordeal has not been nearly as agonizing (although the next one will probably be published in 2030, which is in fact agonizing). Like The Buddha in the Attic, this one is pure poetry, but like When the Emperor Was Divine it also has a plot as well as a protagonist. Sort of.

If this 'novel' is in fact about Alice (most of it is), who is succumbing to dementia, then the first two sections focusing on ‘the swimmers’ of the title are almost unjustifiable in length as, other than introducing and sporadically mentioning Alice, they really have only a tenuous connection with the rest of it. It’s almost two stories for the price of one, which would have been a harder sell to readers I suppose. Independent of each other both the swimming pool sections and the care home sections are amazing—hence my hesitation in using the word ‘padding’—but they just don’t contribute equally to the story being told i.e. the story the publisher has told us were are being told. Still, Julie Otsuka could describe paint drying and I’d read it with relish.
Profile Image for Ari Levine.
202 reviews159 followers
February 13, 2022
This is a genuine heartbreaker of a short novel, especially for one whose storytelling approach is so elliptical and enumerative. Otsuka's prose style is impeccably precise and minimalistic, accumulating into five chapters which are unsifted piles of Post-It Notes with different narrative frames whose foci draw ever tighter.

The novel begins as a Greek chorus in the 1st-person plural, voicing the collective observations of the regular lap swimmers at an underground Californian university pool: a multicultural mosaic people from all walks of life. When the authorities permanently close the pool after a series of scientifically inexplicable cracks emerge in its bottom, this community suddenly evaporates, leaving one of the dozens of swimmers, an elderly Japanese-American woman named Alice, bereft.

It isn't until about 2/5 of the way into the novel that Otsuka shifts from multi-perspectival pointillism to an extreme closeup, and that we realize that Alice has been the novel's central figure all along. (Have you seen the video of a gorilla playing basketball, designed to illustrate the psychological phenomenon of selective attention? That's the closest analogy to this astonishing shift in perspective that Otsuka masterfully pulls off here.)

Without a meaningful way to punctuate and structure her time, Alice's inner life subsides into dementia, as observed by her daughter, a middle-aged novelist who might or might not be an autofictional stand-in for Otsuka. As Alice's world shrinks ever further, and she moves out of her suburban tract house into a memory-care nursing home, the novelist sifts through what she knows (and can never know) about her mother's life, and all the life stories her mother will no longer remember as her inner life contracts ever further: her childhood in an internment camp, her long and contented good-enough marriage, the death of her first child as an infant, the loss of the great love of her life, her experiences as an Asian-American mother in the Bay Area suburbs.

This was an extremely unsentimental account of a beloved parent's decline, written by her adult child with whom she had a complicated but loving relationship, and all the more powerful for it.

Thanks to Netgalley and Knopf for providing me with an ARC in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.
Profile Image for Eric Anderson.
687 reviews3,396 followers
July 5, 2022
One of the most terrifying parts of ageing is the possibility of experiencing or having a loved one who experiences Dementia. I know someone who is wrestling with this issue now and it's such a complicated, difficult and heartrending issue. I'm not sure whether it's consoling or distressing to read a novel which deals with this if it's a condition you're wrestling with but I feel that's up to the individual reader. Nevertheless, I think “The Swimmers” brilliantly depicts how life changes for a character named Alice whose memory deteriorates to the point where her daughter brings her to a care facility. We're first introduced to her as one of many people who frequently swim at an underground pool. The opening section is narrated in their collective voice as they describe the customs of regular swimmers at this pool and how a loose sense of community forms at this location. But one day a crack appears in the pool and this causes a lot of anxiety for the regular swimmers. Shortly after it becomes necessary for Alice to go into care and we learn about her process of being admitted into this facility.

What's so impressive about this novel is that so much emotion is conveyed without the author necessarily delving into the interior thoughts and feelings of the characters. It's a reckoning with mortality that's conveyed so gracefully it left me breathless. I loved the way the opening section describes the sense of freedom the swimmers find in the routines and rules which become established at their pool. There is a solace here in being both known to the other swimmers but also anonymous because this is a space completely detached from ordinary life. Life is reassuringly constant in the pool – until it's disrupted by the fracture which is both literal and a metaphor for the way tragedy infiltrates all of our lives at some point. It's also incredibly moving how the dilemma of Alice's daughter is delicately shown over the period of admitting her mother to the care facility. I intensely felt both her struggle and the process of Alice losing her sense of self. This powerful novel is both beautiful and devastating and I'm so glad I read it.
Profile Image for Julie.
Author 6 books1,864 followers
March 29, 2022
I returned to swimming laps at our modest and cramped city pool two weeks ago. This the third time in two years I've returned to this sacred space, one that finally opened last summer after a prolonged Covid closure, only to close six weeks later due to staff shortages. It reopened at the end of October, then closed again before Christmas because, again, staff shortages. Now it has a drastically reduced schedule. I slip in a workout at lunch or swim in the late afternoon when I'm tired from work. But I do it, because this is one of my physical and mental lifelines.

So I found the first section of Julie Otsuka's artful, dreamy The Swimmers achingly tender and familiar. I don't know what's become of my cohort of 6 am lap swimmers—we haven't been together in over two years, and the pool doesn't open now until mid-morning or late afternoon—but I found their shadows in The Swimmers. This is a meditation on the routines that shape us, that provide us a sense of belonging, introduce characters in our lives that live only in the context of these particular places and activities. The book is like a painting of the pandemic, illustrating how the simplest things that we took for granted—the ability to swim laps at 6 am several days a week, for example—were simply stopped, almost overnight. I took the crack in the bottom of the pool to be a metaphor for the virus, the first uncertain signs of trouble were watched carefully, but at some remove. Then suddenly, it seemed, the fear of imminent collapse shuttered the doors forever.

The second half of The Swimmers picks up the thread of one of the swimmers after her routine is taken from her. She is Alice, a woman with dementia. Alice's mind is suspended, floating, like a body in water. Her decline is witnessed by her daughter and is haunting and indescribably sad. Particularly if you have seen a loved one on the same inevitably tragic trajectory. And when you learn that Julie Otsuka's mother's name was Alice, too.

Beautiful, strange, surreal, shimmering. As much as I loved this ...novel? Prose poem? ... this is the third book Otsuka has offered the reader in this same detached and fragile style, using the same Greek chorus second person voice. Her prose is moving and lovely, but three works in it is starting to feel gimmicky. I would love to see what Otsuka can do with a more linear, grounded narrative.

Finally, one last story within story. This copy of The Swimmers, which I collected from our local library, gets to page 72 and then the next page is 57. It carries through again to page 72, when it skips ahead to page 89. In other words, pages 57-71 are doubled and pages 73-88 are missing. Which is significant in a book that is only 176 pages long. At first I thought it was done on purpose, because the central character, Alice, is suffering from dementia. I thought, this is how it must feel, to suddenly be on page 89 and have no idea what you just read, to be missing pages and pages of your own story. It happens at a point in the book when the perspective changes from the first-person plural "we" to the second-person "you", switching from a chorus of swimmers who lose access to their beloved pool, to one swimmer, Alice, who is losing access to her brain.

What gets me is that I waited in the library holds queue for several weeks for this book. Has no one said anything? Did no one notice? When I returned the book I let the library know they received, and have been shelving, a misprinted book. Working for a publisher, I know that books are printed en masse- there must have been 1000s of these. The librarian promised she would let the director know, and that it would be returned for a correct copy. Funny old world.
Profile Image for Kelly (and the Book Boar).
2,483 reviews7,781 followers
August 8, 2022
Any of you who know me are familiar with the fact that I’m not generally a blurb reader. If I like a title or a cover (*cough houses cough*) or if you guys are reading a book, I’m going to want to read it also. I did take a real teensie little looksee at this one and saw . . . .

“a tour de force of economy, precision, and emotional power about what happens to a group of obsessed recreational swimmers when a crack appears at the bottom of their local pool”

I will not be apologizing for my wrongreading of The Swimmers because that blurb was 100% intentional to get people who had read books like The Lido to pick this one up. I was expecting some strangers with a common cause find a deeper connection while trying to save the neighborhood pool. What I got instead was 1/3 of a book narrated by a collective “we” regarding the crack in the pool and 2/3 about the character Alice’s progressive decline caused by Pick’s Disease. This was not for me.
Profile Image for Jill.
1,189 reviews1,691 followers
April 12, 2022

What really lurks beneath our surface life?

In The Swimmers, Julie Otsuka imagines a cloistered world where all of us – overeaters, underachievers, dog walkers, cross-dressers, compulsive knitters and so on– shed their uniforms and mannerisms and quirks and escape the upper world to swim. It is where they feel truly alive and what they look forward to more than anything else. It is their passion.

But eventually, there are cracks – first one, then multiples. Eventually, “the crack opens to onto a second and deeper world that lies just beneath the surface of ours.” Cast out of their routine and forced to submerge, these swimmers are now treading water once again. One cannot help but think of COVID and its transformation of society.

The first half of the book calls up the lists that were such an arresting part of Ms. Otsuka’s Buddha in the Attic. Each of us becomes part of a “we” – the first-person plural – that embraces us while holding us a little bit on the sidelines.

All that changes in the second part. Suddenly, we plunge into unchartered waters as we are set inside one of the swimmer’s changed circumstances – Alice, a woman with dementia. No longer part of the “we” community any longer, Alice is now in a facility, losing her memory, becoming part of a new and regimented community where each member of it is, in essence, alone. Little by little, she begins to disappear.

As Alice fades, her daughter – a novelist of Japanese descent – returns. There are cracks in their relationship, too, yet the bond between mother and daughter is strong. They are not unlike two swimmers, in different lanes, that every now and then, touch.

I will end this review on a personal note. My own mother died four years ago of Lewy Body Dementia. Our bond was close and witnessing the deterioration was shattering. At one point, I asked her, “Do you love me?” and she seemed not to understand. A few minutes later her face lit up and she said, “I remember something. I love you! I do love you!” When she died, I eulogized her with a variation of Julie Otsuka’s Diem Perdidi chapters – what was remembered, what was lost. I owe a debt to this amazing writer who captures in words what so many of us adult daughters endure.

Profile Image for Lorna.
720 reviews420 followers
April 4, 2022
The Swimmers is the latest novel by Julie Otsuka. While I loved the beautiful, lyrical, and sometimes haunting writing in The Emperor Was Divine and The Buddha in the Attic, I truly struggled with this book. The first section of The Swimmers is about a group of swimmers unknown to one another except in terms of their routine in the morning and afternoon at the community pool. In this section, Otsuka uses the first-person plural throughout. One day a crack becomes visible in the pool and begins to extend ultimately forcing the swimmers to have to abandon the pool permanently. There are a lot of thoughts as to the meaning of the cracks in the pool and its significance.

However, one of the swimmers impacted by this abrupt closure of the pool is Alice, dealing with advancing dementia and relying on the daily swimming as part of her established routine. That routine now is suddenly lost leaving Alice seemingly adrift as the ravages of her dementia worsen. As Alice's condition continues to deteriorate, her family is forced to place her in a for-profit memory care center. As anyone who has experienced the upheaval in one's life suffering from dementia and that of their families, this is portrayed. This section is narrated by Alice's daughter as we begin to glean more about Alice's life and that of her daughter in their complicated mother-daughter relationship. I know that I am an outlier in my opinion.
Profile Image for Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer.
1,823 reviews1,387 followers
September 17, 2022
PEOPLE TO WATCH out for: aggressive lappers, determined thrashers, oblivious backstrokers, stealthy sub-mariners, middle-aged men who insist upon speeding up the moment they sense they are about to be over-taken by a woman, tailgaters, lane Nazis, arm Hailers, ankle yankers, the pickup artist (we are not that kind of a pool), the peeper (a highly regarded children's TV host in his life above ground who is best known below ground for his swift lane change - Nubile new female swimmer in lane four! and his "accidental" underwater bump: So sorry), the woman in lane four with the wide, overextended stroke (too much yoga) ….

This novel is perhaps best described as two separate novellas (the first of two chapters, the second of three) with a common if rather tenuously inserted link.

It is all written in what I believe is the author’s trademark style (or certainly as practiced in her previous novel “The Buddha in the Attic”) of:

Building up a story via a series of very similar and almost repetitive but self-contained/distinct paragraphs;

The use of an unusual voice - here the first two chapter are like in “The Buddha in the Attic” written in the first-person plural ��(we”) – a voice which the author has said is “the ideal voice to use when describing a community from within. It’s a very capacious voice that is infinitely expandable. It allows you to paint a bigger picture than you would otherwise if you were telling the story from a single character’s point of view” - and the second three chapters using a second person approach (“you”);

The heavy use of enumeration;

The second part novel is in the last three chapters, heavily personal and moving; but for me this was an uneasy juxtaposition with the first two chapters which seemed at times rather gimmicky and where, to be honest, the style and subject matter rather annoyed me, so rather destroying the poignancy of the second half, particularly when many of the same stylistic techniques were employed.

The novel starts with a chapter “The Underground Pool” and voices a collective group of swimmers in that pool who for all their different circumstances share a bond and series of unwritten rules while they swim – many of them using swimming as a form of physical or mental therapy (and one Alice as the only temporary relief and freedom she gets from her rapidly onsetting dementia).

Now I think it is generally excepted that next to someone explaining their dreams to you, the next most boring person to sit next too at a dinner is someone who runs long distance and thinks you are as interested in them as to their training regime. The mercy with this group of swimmers is that they more follow fight club rules about their own form of exercise (and come across more as unlikeable due to their clear hostility to others) – but unfortunately in voicing them collectively the author instead subjects us to the tedia of their swimming speeds styles (all listed of course) or distances swam. This section also has a style of “the woman in lane four …”, “one of us ….” while describing these aspects or details of the swimmers backgrounds or home lives – which at times made me wonder if the enture chapter was an extended Einstein style puzzle “the swimmer in lane 2 smokes Pall Mall and rears birds; the person in the green costume drinks coffee” but more seemed pointless.

The second chapter is perhaps the most intriguing with Saramago type vibes – as a crack appears, not between Portugal and the European continent but on the bottom of the pool, and as the cracks evolution becomes increasingly more fable like it leaves the swimmers bereft and confused – most sadly Alice (who stands as the only real non-stylistic link between the first two halves).

The next three chapters then switch to the story of Alice (suffering frontotemporal dementia) and her unnamed daughter, herself an author (the author’s own mother suffered with FTD) and are at times affecting.

The first “Diem Perdidi” (to lose the day) has lists of things “she” [Alice] “remembers” or “does not remember” about the “you” and paints an effective picture of a woman suffering from dementia related memory loss as well as her back story (including her childhood memories of her father’s FBI detention and her own move with her mother to a camp for Japanese Americans).

The second “Belavista” address Alice as the “you” – with the narrator setting out the rules and procedures of the nursing home to which she has been admitted as well as how her time there will play out. The home itself was a little of an oddity to me (I was slightly unclear if this was due to UK/US differences or do the chapter being part satirical) – as it seemed a mix of very high tech (cups that are hydration trackers, alarm clocks which are actually motion sensors) and very low care and compassion – which is the exact opposite of my own experience of nursing homes or more recently over the last month geriatric care wards in hospitals.

The third (and final of the book) “Euronuro” has a second person point of view account by the daughter “you” of the time before and after her mother’s death.

Overall a potentially very moving book which really failed to work for me due to its opening half.

Interestingly I had the complete opposite reaction to Patricia Lockwood’s “No One Is Talking About This” which I think had parallels to this novel.
Profile Image for Sunny.
702 reviews3,656 followers
May 14, 2022
Loved the “we” voice in the initial chapters, the semi-journalistic writing style, the charm and whimsy and heart of this book. It got narrower in scope towards the second half as it started to focus on the mother’s dementia, which I understand is intentional to the story being told, but the ending feel somewhat abrupt? And the absurdist details of the beginning started drifting away later on… but I thoroughly enjoyed this and I love quirky feel good books about family and love with a bit of a weird twist to it

Maybe 4.5 stars?? I’m not sure yet
Profile Image for Jenna.
354 reviews330 followers
April 11, 2022
I went with a neutral 3 star rating because, while I didn't love this book, I also didn't hate it. I finished it a few weeks ago and needed some time to let it simmer. Because it is so different from most that I tend to pick up, it was a bit tricky for me to decide my final feelings on it.

I really, really enjoyed the first half of this book. I loved hearing about the different nuances of each of the swimmers, about how they carve out time in their day to day to spend some time underground in the water. I thought it was really beautifully written, with lovely descriptions and lyrical prose. I found myself wanting to know more about each of the characters, and also relating to it as someone who has spend many miles in a pool swimming with other strangers. We recognize one another, we know the others exist, we have casual conversation, but we never really KNOW one another. So, for the first half the book, I was extremely entertained and engrossed.

Then, the second half. This description of life for someone with severe memory loss (I believe it was Alzheimer's, but again, it's been a few weeks since I finished it) was heartbreaking and eye opening. As someone who lost a grandparent with Alzheimer's, I found it intriguing but also painful.

My issue, however, wasn't with the first half of the book or the second half of the book. It was the book as a whole being published as ONE book. It felt like two books to me - or two essays pushed together into one when it should've just stayed as two. I would describe this book as disjointed - with the first half being entertaining, the second heavy and heartbreaking, evoking strong emotion. It made for an incredibly unbalanced reading experience for me, and also had me wondering if I had forgotten something with the narrative as I moved into the second half. Like did I miss the part where the author explained something crucial? No, I didn't - the perspective shift was just so drastic that I had whiplash.

Overall, I do think this book will be a big win for those who enjoy this style of storytelling - emotional, heavy, and slow paced.
Profile Image for Sally.
72 reviews1,118 followers
July 3, 2022
This was disappointing for me. I thought it would be much different and I wasn't a huge fan of the way it went after we left the pool. The pool, to me, felt pointless and I was bummed because it was the part I found the most intriguing. I wish we could have delved into some of the topics that were brought up more. It felt like some things were mentioned and never discussed again and those same things were what made me pick it up in the first place.

Compelling writing style, interesting setting for a few chapters, but overall, don't think I'll be thinking about this one tomorrow.

That being said, Surf's Up is checked off my bingo board!
Profile Image for Jaclyn.
Author 57 books609 followers
January 25, 2022
Do you love short novels? Vignettes? Detached writing styles? Weird inexplicable narrative threads and cracks? Heartbreaking hints at the long-term impacts of wartime internment? Spellbinding storytelling? Having your heart broken open? Well do I have the book for you!
Profile Image for jenny✨.
578 reviews841 followers
April 6, 2022
i didn't really know what to expect when i picked up this pint-sized novel with the beautiful blue cover. and i'm glad i didn't think too hard about what might be contained within its pages - i wouldn't have been able to anticipate what i found.

the swimmers is split into five segments, each focused on a theme, each bearing a distinctive narrative style.

"the underground pool" and "the crack" describe a community of swimmers who congregate religiously, devotedly, at a local pool. one of these swimmers is a japanese woman named alice, who is losing her memory. eventually, the routines of everyone - particularly alice - are thrown totally off-kilter by the appearance of a mysterious crack in the pool.

in "diem perdidi" (latin for "i have lost the day"), we gain deeper insight into alice's life before and after she loses grasp of her memories - we glimpse fragments of her time spent in an internment camp for japanese people during wwii, her first love, heartbreak, marriage, children.

meanwhile, "belavista" reads like a sardonic AI extolling the virtues of an anything-but-idyllic long-term care home for patients with memory loss.

and finally, "euroneuro" is wholly tinged with grief, highlighting the things that were lost before alice's memories ever began to slip away.

the five segments are unified by otsuka's spare, arresting prose and her use of an experimental form: fragments of text that, together, weave a story primarily told from alice's daughter's point of view.

in this way, otsuka's narrative technique and the novel's unconventional form mirror the content of the prose.

in the novel's first three parts, the reader is viscerally submerged into the rote repetitiveness of alice’s life. ("diem perdidi", for example, comprises mainly of incantatory sentences beginning "she remembers", "she remembers" or "she does not remember".)

additionally, we experience for ourselves the startling disruption to alice's life that occurs with the appearance of the swimming pool crack (mirrored by the stark contrast between "the crack" and "belavista"), as well as the deterioration that ensues after alice loses her routines.

through cynical, jocular deadpan, we feel the absurdity (and indignity) of being placed at a long-term care home like belavista. and as the events of "euroneuro" progress and pile up, we understand the insidious grief that accompanies a gradual accumulation of losses. (i'm actually reminded of elizabeth bishop's poem, one art: "The art of losing isn’t hard to master; / so many things seem filled with the intent / to be lost that their loss is no disaster.")

for me, it was also interesting to read the swimmers on the tails of patricia lockwood’s no one is talking about this, which features a similarly fragmented form and produces a similarly immersive effect.

what emerges across this short but emotionally charged novel is a quiet poignance, a sense of loss that almost sneaks up on you, so deft is otsuka's use of dry humour to convey the mundane minutiae of one woman's life - the memories, the routines, the regrets and hurts, and what happens upon erasure of it all.
Profile Image for Banu Yıldıran Genç.
Author 1 book785 followers
June 21, 2023
açıkçası julie otsuka’nın “tavan arasındaki buda”yı konusu itibariyle ilginç bulsam da edebi açıdan çok parlak bulmamıştım. ama okuyalı on yılı geçti, valla belki de ben değişmişimdir, bilmiyorum. ama “yüzücüler” konusunda beklentim çok yüksek değilken beklentimin çok üstünde çıktı. hayatta en sevdiğim şeylerden biri böyle sürprizler.
ilk bölümü sıkıcı bulan olmuş, bence kitabın en can alıcı bölümüydü. yeraltındaki bir havuzda hayatta mecbur oldukları her şeyden (kocalardan, çocuklardan, işten güçten) azade olan bir grup insan ve havuzda bir anda ortaya çıkan gizemli bir çatlakla yaşamlarının değiştiği anlatılıyor. havuzun metaforu, simgelediği hayat, o hırslı tipler, yavaşlar, tek turcular vs… öyle müthiş bir gözlemle aktarmış ki otsuka. ve ben de hayatta böyle şeylere tutunduğumdan (şu satırları yazdığım kamp kapansa ne bok yerim bilmiyorum mesela) çok tanıdık geldi tüm anlatılanlar. mutlu yuva, mutlu iş, mutlu dünya nasıl bir illüzyon gözümüze sokuyor. üstelik 1. çoğul şahıs kipiyle ve kısa kısa ritmik cümlelerle ve pek çok örnekle, usta bir teknikle yapıyor.
sonra yüzücülerden alice’e ve onun hikayesine odaklanıyoruz. demansın ilk evresinden sonra yüzmeyi de bırakmasıyla hızla ilerleyen bu zorlu hastalık, kendi gözünden, kızının gözünden ve yatırıldığı bakımevinin gözünden aktarılıyor.
burada otsuka’nın sevdiği etnik hikaye ortaya çıkıyor. ilk bölümde ırkını bilmediğimiz ama demansıyla tanıdığımız alice abd’nin 2. dünya savaşı sonrası hapse tıktığı japonlardan biri, o zaman çocuk.
hafıza bölümleri çok etkili, vurucu, hastalık çok gerçek. yazarın yakinen yaşadığı bir trajedi, çok belli. ama sonlara doğru romana sızan bir ahlakçılık sezdim. bakımevinin ne boktan bir yer olduğu kendi ağzından anlatılıyor. evet biliyoruz ama modern hayatta başka şansımız var mı?
sonra alice’in kendi annesine nasıl yıllarca baktığıyla kızının haftada 1 bakımevine uğraması karşılaştırılıyor sanki. belki de yazar kendiyle yüzleşiyor bilmiyorum ama bu konularda geleneksel doğu toplumlarının vicdan azabı beni çok yoruyor. hepimiz kimsenin bakımevine yatırılmak istemediğinin farkındayız. bunun gözüme sokulması beni rahatsız etti. eğer bakımevine yatırmak zorunda kaldığım biri olsaydı (ki elbette olabilir ilerde) çok çok daha kötü olurdum. ama belki de amaçlanan buydu zaten.
anne kız ilişkisini çok doğru noktalardan yakalayan, erkeğin önce ölmesinin her şartta kurtarıcı olduğunu bize yine kanıtlayan, yaşanamamış bir aşkın acısını yıllar sonra demansla yüzümüze vuran roman havuzdaki çatlağın her bir yaşamda olacağını çok güzel bağlamış.
duygu akın her zamanki gibi yazarın dilini, cümlelerin ritmini mükemmel yakalamış.
Profile Image for Chelsea (chelseadolling reads).
1,479 reviews19.5k followers
January 20, 2023
The writing itself was great, but the subject matter kicked my ass so unfortunately I ended up really not enjoying this one. Bummer for me, but I definitely still recommend checking it out if you're interested and can handle reading about very detailed depictions of dementia

cw: dementia
Profile Image for Matthew Ted.
767 reviews660 followers
April 27, 2022
43rd book of 2022.

3.5. This is a really different read: there are not many novels that use the first-person-plural for the entirety of the first chapter. Chapter One, "The Underground Pool" opens with,
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 above-ground afflictions.

And so it continues. The first chapter continues with this strange plural voice, 'we', 'our', so we, as readers, strangely become part of the swimmers. Otsuka gives us no main character, we fly about the pool, observing the showers, the building itself, one person in the shower, another in the pool, the rules, vague reasons why one would swim every day, only one character seemed to be favoured, the old lady, Alice. I didn't actually read the blurb until I finished the second chapter, so I wondered where the novel was going. By the end of the second chapter, a crack has appeared at the bottom of the pool and all the swimmers are worried about it. Why is it there? Does it have a greater meaning or purpose? By this point I only had 100 pages left of the novel and there had been no characters, no real scenes, just a flying overview camera, a chorus of voices and characters, all centred around a swimming pool. I then went back and read the blurb,
One of these swimmers is Alice, in whose memory cracks are also beginning to appear. Without the fellowship of other swimmers and the routine of her daily laps, she is plunged into dislocation and chaos, swept into memories of her childhood, the Japanese American incarceration camp in which she spent the war, and the child she lost.

And from that point in the book, it shifts. It is now the second person, you, as Alice's daughter, dealing with the slow decline of her mental state through dementia. The second half is a 4-star read, particularly for me who is still dealing with my grandmother with dementia. Everything Otsuka writes is real, relatable. Even the strangest thing about becoming a lover of trees even if they were never before rings true as my grandmother, more than anything else, loves to point out big trees, a far-reaching willow, or a blooming blossom. Or just the sky, she says over and over again, "Blue, blue, blue, blue," whilst pointing [1]. The thing about dementia is how their universe shrinks and shrinks: as they lose the ability to do things, their physical universe shrinks down to a flat, one route outside, a singular coffee shop; as their ability to talk disintegrates their social universe shrinks, they can no longer communicate what they want, talk to the neighbours, talk to us ("I wasn't always like this," she sometimes feels the need to assure me); as their memory fails, their personal world shrinks, on days she no longer recognises my brother, or she cannot remember the names of her other grandchildren. Alice's decline reads like an accelerated version of my last few years. The last half of the novel becomes a reflection on dementia, growing old, the lives we leave and the people we leave and ultimately becomes a worthy and memorable read. But, the 76 pages prior to this, the swimming pool, the habits of all the swimmers, the building itself, investigations into the crack, it all feels too disjointed. The crack in the swimming pool is, as the blurb suggests, a mirroring of the mental 'cracks' in Alice's mind, but once we leave the swimming pool, all those characters Otsuka draws, the unspoken rules of the pool meticulously detailed, the untethered backstories about the kind of people who swim, it all seems a little wasted once we reach the second half. I used to swim a lot and found much of it relatable, but by the end I wondered why she wasted so much time with it. That being said, the novel is only 176 pages and the wasted time is hardly wasted time. I read this in under 24 hours. I'd recommend it simply for the final half, good stuff.

[1] Go to 1.48, 1.57 and 2.10 in David Bowie's "Sound and Vision" for impersonations of my grandmother.
Profile Image for Monica (crazy_4_books).
721 reviews114 followers
March 19, 2022
If you think this book is about a funny eccentric group of swimmers obsessed with a crack at the bottom of the pool...you're wrong! This book is about a rare type of dementia, one so vividly described it will leave you sad and depressed and, if your parents are still alive, you'll be praying they will never get it 😭 ...and I thought this would be a light vacation read! 🙄
Profile Image for Rincey.
818 reviews4,584 followers
August 25, 2023
I have such conflicted feelings about this book. The writing is BEAUTIFUL and I absolutely adored the first part of this book where you are following the swimmers who attend this pool and it feels like it is pulling you into a story about this community of people who are so different from each other but connected via this pool.

But that's not at all what the book is and you go into part 2 and part 3 feeling like you're reading a completely different book. And all I wanted was to go back to the pool.

Watch my full thoughts in my June wrap up: https://youtu.be/5O9H-dys13U
Profile Image for Bonnie Brody.
1,214 reviews187 followers
January 30, 2022
It's difficult to review a book as heartfelt and true as The Swimmers. Julie Otsuka has written a masterpiece that will be with me forever.

The novel is about Alice, a woman with Pick's disease, a type of dementia. The narrative follows the relationship between Alice and her daughter as Alice's disease progresses. The daughter is a writer and the novel has some of the aspects of the best memoirs.

This short novel starts with a chapter about swimmers in an underground pool, probably a YMCA. Each swimmer obeys the pool's unspoken rules and keeps to the same lane every day. They are happy to be away from the hustle and bustle of 'the'outside'' because in the pool everything is quiet and peaceful, perfect for all the swimmers. One day, however, a crack appears at the bottom of the pool and this is horribly upsetting to the swimmers. What can it be and what caused it? As the book progresses, I found it a clear metaphor for the beginning of Alice's demise, the crack in her mind so to speak.

The next chapter, Diem Perdidi, is a short story, one I believe that Ms. Otsuka has previously published. It is about the progression of her mother's dementia as her daughter looks on. Diem Perdidi, translatesd something like 'the lost day', is beautifully rendered as is the profound sense of loss it conveys.

Ultimately, Alice is sent to reside in a long-term care facility that is regimented, cold, and like many medical facilities, caring more about the profit than the patient.

I loved the parts of the book that explored the daughter's relationship with Alice, especially her distance from her mother since leaving home for college. Alice sounds like a powerhouse in her youth but it is easy to see how fractious a mother/daughter relationship might have been.

Ms. Otsuka writes like no other author. She is unique in her style which I found mesmerizing and lyrical. The book never slows down. It rides, like the wind, on the beauty of the author's words. Her style reminded me of music, with its repetitions and short rifs. The composers Erik Satie and Philip Glass come to mind. This will be one of my top 10 books of 2022 and one of my favorite novels of all time.

Thank you to Knopf Doubleday and NetGalley for this early review copy.
Profile Image for Katerina.
832 reviews695 followers
May 26, 2023
Душераздирающе, и хоть меня бесило «помнит-не помнит», где-то в середине я словила полупаническую атаку прямо на улице и села на скамейку на автобусной остановке подышать.
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