Julie Otsuka’s first novel in 10 years is a quiet and startling masterpiece about memory, aging and the indelible experiences that define a life. The slim novel reads like a much longer one, its mere 192 pages giving rise to the possibility of infinite stories. The effortlessly musical prose will be familiar to readers of Otsuka’s previous novels, especially her 2011 bestseller, The Buddha in the Attic. But The Swimmers is even more structurally bold.
The novel begins with two chapters told in the collective second person. A group of amateur swimmers, all of whom belong to the same community pool, speaks about their obsessions, grievances and small triumphs. When a mysterious crack appears in the bottom of the pool, some are curious, but some begin to panic. Soon they all wonder if this means that their swimming days are numbered.
The third chapter, told in the second person, narrows in on one particular swimmer: an elderly Japanese American woman named Alice, who is in the early stages of dementia. As her memory slips away and the past and present lose their distinct boundaries, Alice struggles to hold onto her sense of self. She still exists in the world, still has opinions and fears and desires, but everyone around her—her fellow swimmers, her husband, her daughter—views her as someone fading, incapable, a danger to herself.
The Swimmers seems to continually reinvent itself as each section reframes everything that came before it. Reading something so inventive and playful is a bit like being inside an architectural blueprint as it’s being drawn, or watching an acorn grow into a massive oak in only a few minutes. This is not a simple, orderly, linear novel. It unfolds in a messy chorus of contradictory, unpredictable voices that each bring something different to the whole.
With nuance, grace and deep tenderness, Otsuka ponders the questions that define our lives: Who are we without our memories? What does it mean to truly see someone else, to see ourselves? What is knowable about the world, and what do we do with the mysteries no one can solve? Funny, moving and composed of sentences that read like small poems, The Swimmers is a remarkable novel from a writer with an unparalleled talent for capturing the stuff of the world, whether mundane, harrowing or bizarre.