The highly salubrious, deeply life-affirming and quintessentially Australian (and American) pastime of swimming laps at the local public pool is a soothing ritual that many – the novice, the triathlete and former Olympians – partake in. It is such a utopic environment, a local swimming pool, where a plethora of eclectic lap swimmers and pool exercisers are found, that is the vibrantly-beating heart of renowned American author Julie Otsuka’s latest soaring, if at times heartbreaking, latest novel, “The Swimmers”.
The very epicentre of ‘the swimmers’ ‘ (who are realistically and sombrely, yet at times comically depicted) lives’ in the town in America described, but never named, in the novel is the local underground and much-frequented swimming pool.
As Julie Otsuka tells us early on in “The Swimmers”, “Up above there are wildfires, smog alerts, epic droughts, paper jams, teachers’ strikes, insurrections, revolutions, blisteringly hot days that never seem to let up…., but down below, at the pool, it is always a comfortable eighty-one degrees”.
The characters who ‘go down’ to the pool as an integral part of their day are lane swimmers and water exercisers, who, for an assortment of justifiable reasons, find themselves dutifully amassing lap-upon-lap of pool swimming – at varying speeds and doing many stokes.
As Julie tells us, “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. Others of us are employed at the local college nearby and prefer to take our lunch breaks down below, in the waters, far away from the harsh glares of our colleagues and screens…..Many of us live in the neighborhood and simply love to swim…”
It is at the pool that we are first tentatively introduced to Alice, a regular elderly lap swimmer and former lab technician, who is suffering from early stage dementia. Alice has been frequenting the pool for many years, and declares ” ‘Up there….I’m just another little old lady. But…at the pool, I’m myself’ “.
When a crack mysteriously and initially innocuously appears at the bottom of the pool, the swimmers are at first perplexed, however mostly non-vexed. As time passes and more cracks begin to appear, the worried swimmers are fearful of what it may mean. Ultimately, a meeting is called by the powers that be, the result of which entails a brutal decision to close the pool for good. The swimmers are not happy, but what can they do?
The description of Alice’s last lap ever swum at the pool is as poignant as it is brave, “And when she’s swum her last lap she takes a long hot shower in the locker room and changes back into her clothes and then climbs up the stairs and emerges, blinking and stunned, into the bright, blazing world above”.
The latter, and most defiantly heartbreaking, part of the novel encapsulates Alice’s slow, yet steady and all-consuming descent into advanced dementia. Alice is a Japanese American, and recalls, whilst losing her memory of her daily life – such as the president’s name and the name of his dog – , memories of her time spent living in an internment camp during the Second World War with her brother. Alice also remembers sadly the baby girl whom Alice lost soon after she gave birth to her. Thankfully, Alice also recalls times in her life when she was supremely happy, described so beautifully by Julie, as she writes of Alice, “She remembers walking along the water with him (Frank, a former boyfriend) one warm summer evening on the boardwalk and being so happy she could not remember her own name”.
Gut-wrenchingly, Alice declines to the extent that she is ‘sent’ to a type of dystopian nursing home called Belavista, where all the residents are heavily monitored and where things are not always as they appear.
Alice’s daughter (neither Alice’s daughter or husband are named in the novel) recalls the many dreams Alice once had for her life, “Her hopes were once extravagant. She wanted perfect babies…and a nice house with a fireplace and a big backyard where the children could run and play”.
Now, Alice’s daughter laments of herself regarding Alice, “You never took her to Paris or Venice or Rome, all places she had dreamed of one day seeing”.
As the real Alice shrinks metaphorically, doesn’t speak for two years and “no longer smiles”, we, as readers, steadily forsee the ending that is to be Alice’s.
Julie Otsuka has written a novel of superlative depth, intelligence and insight. The cracks that are depicted in the pool earlier in “The Swimmers” mirror the fissures that are developing in Alice’s once healthy brain and personality.
Like many of the swimmers described in this book, I am a devoted lap swimmer at my local swimming pool (in the summer months), and so delighted in the observations Julie writes about pertaining to the pool and swimmers in “The Swimmers”.
Like all good books, this one made me think and reflect. Julie has a gift for writing about life that really resonates with the reader – no matter their background and interests. I loved this book, and can’t wait to see what Julie writes about next.