The swimmers are unknown to one another except through their private routines (slow lane, medium 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 American incarceration camp in which she spent the war.
Brief quotes give the text the veneer of nonfiction, and keep the narrative at arm’s length, rather than pull you close as fiction often attempts to ... We leave the pool in the novel’s second half, and are firmly anchored aboveground with Alice, diagnosed with dementia, and her unnamed daughter ... Otsuka’s prose is powerfully subdued: She builds lists and litanies that appear unassuming, even quotidian, until the paragraph comes to an end, and you find yourself stunned by what she has managed ... It’s in [the] dissonance that the novel’s halves begin to meaningfully cohere ... The puzzling narrative structure makes a kind of poetic sense as myth ... The Swimmers makes an archetypal story wholly personal ... In a time of monotony and chaos, when death is as concrete as it is unimaginable, and when cracks can and do appear in the pool for no discernible reason, The Swimmers is an exquisite companion. Though it doesn’t answer the unanswerable, the novel’s quiet insistence resonates: that it is our perfectly ordinary proclivities that make us who we are.
There is a minimalism to Julie Otsuka's work. The sentences in her slim books dive right into the details ... another artfully refined story, even when it delves into the most painful parts of life ... The book's chapters build upon each other but also hold the pleasure of complete, distinct stories ... Otsuka beautifully renders the particularities of a life fully using every word, including the pronouns. She has a way of presenting seemingly objective details, but the emotions seep through the minutiae so that we know and feel much about Alice and those who care for her. With virtuosity, Otsuka hands us each crystallized inch of this tale that reflects a life — the pages memorialize what can't be forgotten.
... a slim brilliant novel about the value and beauty of mundane routines that shape our days and identities; or, maybe it's a novel about the cracks that, inevitably, will one day appear to undermine our own bodies and minds; and — who knows? — it could also be read as a grand parable about the crack in the world wrought by this pandemic ... Otsuka's signature spare style as a writer unexpectedly suits her capacious vision ... You'd think the subjects here and this choral type of narration would make for a cold, impersonal dirge of a novel. Instead, The Swimmers has the verve and playfulness of spoken word poetry ... glides lightly through these philosophical waters, more lightly I think, than Cheever's metaphor-heavy short story did. But why compare? There's room enough for all in this Olympic-sized existential pool.