Book Review: Julie Otsuka’s The Swimmers is a Book of Memory, Grief and Remembering

A short, single-sitting read, Julie Otsuka’s The Swimmers portrays grief like a slow opening of a wound, writes Samiksha Ransom in this review

“Up there,” she says, I’m just another little old lady. But down here, at the pool, I’m myself.”
~ Julie Otsuka, The Swimmers

Julie Otsuka’s The Swimmers is a short, almost a single-sitting read that grips through its power of portraying grief, like the slow opening of a wound. This is the story of Alice, an old woman with dementia who sometimes forgets everything and everyone, including her own daughter’s name, and yet, remembers to show up at the nearby pool to ‘swim in her line’, sometimes even on days the pool is closed.

But what does all this forgetting matter? In the water, Alice’s limbs know exactly what to do, which strokes to make, how to keep her head above the water and survive, and also to thrive. Then one day something terrible happens – a crack appears in the pool, it grows and grows until the pool needs to be shut down completely.

Alice’s life cracks too. What now? Can she be ‘herself’ anymore? Now that she cannot swim, who is she, anyway? How much bleakness does the future hold for her? Alice’s daughter now tells the story; a beautiful rendering of a strained mother-daughter relationship or the lack of a relationship, however, the reader wants to put it.

Though Alice is central to the narrative, Otsuka does not tell only her story. She also tells the story of all those who love to swim, who find their refuge under water rather than on land: divorced husbands, tired wives, “secret hoarders, minor poets, trailing spouses, twins, vegans, “Mom”, a second-rate fashion designer,” and other aquatic human-creatures, all of who cannot find solace anywhere else.

The daughter’s story is different though, which she chooses to reveal very little of, while instead narrating the story of her mother – when she was well, when she remembered. Well into her middle-age, Alice’s daughter still struggles with the fact of her incompetence and her failure to live up to her mother’s expectations. Her regrets about her failed marriage have nothing to do with her husband or herself, and everything to do with Alice. Yet the relationship between the two is not completely lost; the more one forgets, the more the other remembers. The more one seems to be vanishing, the more the other holds fast to them and brings back the lost pieces.

Told in short chapters, in fast-paced paragraphs that read like lists, and from the points of views of different individuals; Otsuka employs the third person collective, the second person, and third person omniscient points of view to wittingly weave a single narrative – the mark of a literary genius who has mastered the craft. The Swimmers is a cleverly written book with tremendous poise.

Pick up Julie Otsuka’s The Swimmers from any Kunzum store or WhatsApp +91.8800200280 to order. Buy the book(s) and the coffee’s on us.

About the Reviewer:

Samiksha Ransom is a writer and editor. Her work has appeared in Tint Journal, EKL Review, The Chakkar, JAKE, The Lake, Live Wire (by The Wire), The Friday Poem and more. Her work was longlisted for the Poet’s in Vogue Challenge by the Young Poet’s Network, UK in 2023. Currently, Samiksha also edits for The Selkie Publications CIC and The Dawn Review. In the past, she has edited for the borderline and The Terrarium (Hellebore Press) literary magazines. In her newsletter, ‘Letters from Sam – Conversations, Maybe’ on Substack, she shares writing and publishing tips. She also teaches creative writing workshops occasionally. You can reach out to her on  Instagram and Linktree.

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