I have reviewed Julie Otsuka’s previous two novels and loved them both. Otsuka is an amazingly talented writer. Her novels are not long; her sentences tend to be short but deliver beautiful imagery and subtle emotion. They are, as I have mentioned previously, like a pointillist painting in verbal form. Both When the Emperor Was Divine and The Buddha in the Attic, critically acclaimed winners of numerous awards, deal with Otsuka’s family history: immigration from Japan to California and the experience of US internment camps during WWII. Much of what she included in those two stories is based on what happened to her family, particularly to her mother as a child in an internment camp. In The Swimmers, Otsuka turns once again to her mother for a story that will resonate with many readers. This novel is not about the experience of Japanese Americans but of those who find themselves caring for a parent suffering from dementia. This is a painful topic for those who know what it is like to watch a parent lose their memories and their independence, but Otsuka deals with the reality of this loss truthfully and with great sensitivity.
The Swimmers begins with an underground swimming pool and the various swimmers who visit it on a regular basis. For the first 75 pages, Otsuka describes the swimmers and the pool. This may sound like it would be tedious and boring but I found it delightful and often quite funny. As a former lap swimmer, I recognized the types Otsuka describes — the slow, the flailers , the swimmers who feel the need to pass you, etc. She describes the thoughts the swimmers have about their laps, the way it makes them feel, and how swimming helps them deal with the rest of their day. She also describes the way swimmers get to know and interact with each other over the years. They may be stuck in their heads while swimming, but they are aware that they are part of a community. They know each other and care for each other. The pool’s equilibrium is disturbed the day a crack is found in the bottom of the deep end. The reactions to the crack vary greatly: some ignore it, others fear it and refuse to swim in the lane that is above it. Some worry that it is a harbinger of terrible things to come while others eventually convince themselves that it is nothing. Some folks stop swimming laps altogether. Eventually, after the pool authorities investigate, it seems to be a minor affair, nothing to worry about, until more and more cracks appear. At this point, authorities determine that the pool must be closed. Some leave immediately, others continue their laps until the very last minute of the very last day.
One lap swimmer’s name is mentioned several times in the first 75 pages: Alice. She is an old woman who shows up regularly and is a sweet lady if a little forgetful. The other swimmers are protective of her, especially if “new” swimmers join the pool and are not patient with her. In the rest of this novel, 100 pages, we learn more about Alice, a Japanese American woman who as a child had endured the internment camps of WWII. Alice is suffering from dementia, and her husband and daughter are trying to care for her and make sure she is safe. Otsuka describes in her unique style what Alice is going through, which often is what she remembers and what she has forgotten. This is presented almost as a poem, a litany, and it is so very sad, and will be so very familiar to anyone who has seen a loved one go through this. These passages give us Alice’s history, and we see what her loved ones are witnessing: a lively, brilliant woman who is slowly losing first her memories and her independence, then her mobility and speech. The effect of this degeneration upon her husband and daughter are presented in similarly simple but direct language: the desire to leave sheets as they were because she had touched them and will never be home again; the feelings of guilt about not visiting more or longer; the realization of the “lasts”: the last time she rode in the car, the last time she remembered your name, the last time she spoke words. We all know where this story will end. There is no cure for dementia, no recovery. There is only the inevitable end.
Otsuka’s novels amaze me because they don’t feel like novels, like “stories,” and I’m sure that is because she includes much that is real and factual in her works. From her first two novels, I learned a lot about US history’s dark side and about the Japanese American experience in the first half of the 20th century. The Swimmers did not teach me anything new about swimming or dementia, but I found myself nodding along. Yes, that’s the way it is, the way if feels, the way it hurts. We need to do a better job with health care, elder care, and brain research.