The Swimmers | Julie Otsuka #USAnovella

Opening Lines:

The pool is located deep underground, in a large cavernous chamber many feet beneath the streets of out town. Some of us come here becasue we are injured, and need to heal. We suffer from bad backs, fallen arches, shattered dreams, broken hearts, anxiety, melncholia, anhedonia, the usual aboveground afflictions.

For about a decade of my life, I was a swimmer. Nothing fancy or flash. Certainly not fast. Due to a susceptibility for middle ear infections, I preferred breast-stroking my way from one end of the pool to the other. I had no pattern or set routine; my number of laps depending entirely on my energy levels on any particular day.

When we moved in 2015 I started using a different pool. For a couple of years I suffered through too many children in the pool and multiple sinus infections which I eventually attributed to the pool. My motivation waned. The thought of finding another pool seemed too hard…then Covid happened.

On our recent holiday in FNQ I found myself swimming again every day. It was a wake up call to how much my body has changed in the past few years. I’ve slowed down, parts of me ache that never did before and lethargy is something I battle most days. But floating along, doing some lazy breast-stroking felt so soothing and calming, it made me wonder why I had stopped. Even after just a few days I could feel my tummy muscles tightening again. I returned to Sydney determined to swim again. But, of course, I haven’t. We haven’t had a day over 25°C yet which means it’s too cold for me – I need the outside temp to be at least 28 to think about swimming. These are the stories I tell myself about my swimming life.

The Swimmers is the stories Julie Otsuka tells to come to terms with her own mother’s illness.

Autofiction is a curious literary label. Surely it should be obvious if something is an autobiography or whether it is fiction.

It could be said that an autobiography is the life story or stories that the author wishes us to know about them. We all know from our personal stories how these can change and evolve with the passing of time, each time the story is retold (at Christmas, to your psychologist, best friend, new lover etc) the story is a little different from the last time you told it. The stories are told to help make sense of your life. They are the authors version of what happened when. An autobiography is a reflection or retrospect of a life. They are about looking back, trying to find patterns, connections or meaning in the morass of memory.

Memoirs focus on one part of the authors life. They take one moment, one significant event or one important part of their life to create a narrative. The narrative is based on fact; it is someone’s real life experiences as they remember them, but a memoir is more conscious of telling a story in my opinion.

Fiction is imagination at work. But, as all writers will tell you, aspects of their real life often make their way into the fictional stories. A conversation, a view, or a feeling will find its way into a character’s mouth. The characters may even resemble the author in some way – the way they react to experiences, the way they get ready to go to work, the food they like to eat. But the character is NOT the author, they simply share some traits.

Autofiction blurs this line completely.

In The Swimmers, Julie Otsuka takes the real life experience of her mother’s Alzheimer’s, or more specifically, Pick’s disease and turns the inevitable into a beautiful, heart-rending novella, that may have inspired me take up swimming again.

The shock of the water – there is nothing like it on land. The cool clear liquid flowing over every inch of your skin. The temporary reprieve from gravity. The miracle of your own bouyancy as you glide, unhindered, across the glossy blue surface of the pool. …The pure pleasure of being in motion.

Told in five acts, the first takes us into the life of an underground pool using first person plural. We learn about the people who swim there, why, their particular habits and quirky ways, the rules of the pool and how they all care for Alice. One of the pool rules is ‘Be nice to Alice.’

The second introduces the crack that shatters the peaceful rhythm of the swimmers lives. As I was coming to the end of this section, I wondered if Otsuka was drawing parallels to what we’ve all just been through with the pandemic. Many of the theories about ‘the crack’ sounded very familiar.

Some say that the crack was deliberately planted by management as an excuse to shut down the pool…There is also talk of bottomless crevices, long-buried chemical waste sites, a collapsed salt mine, a subterranean river whose waters have flowed unimpeded for more than then thousand years.

The third section is a third person perspective of Alice, who is clearly having memory issues. The fourth section switches to second person narrative to describe Alice’s arrival into Belavista, a ‘long-term, for-profit memory residence conveniently located on a former parking lot off the freeway.’ It’s as depressing as it sounds.

The final chapter is a mix of second and third person narrative that brings in the daughter’s perspective as she witnesses her mother’s decline. Just like the unexplained crack that appears in the underground pool, the daughter is left trying to figure out why this has happened to her mother.

What was it, you wonder, that first made her begin to forget?

Otsuka’s Bibliofile:

  • When the Emperor was Divine (2002) is a story created from the experiences her grandparents, mother and uncle (all of Japanese descent) endured during their incarceration in camps during WWII in America.
  • The Buddha in the Attic (2011) is a story about the picture brides from Japan who came to America in the early 1900’s to marry men they had never met.

Given the time taken between books, it is easy to speculate that Otsuka’s stories and writing processes are deeply personal, arising out of family moments that hold great significance for her. The Swimmers certainly had a cathartic element for me as I read it. I hope it was cathartic for Otsuka too.

Novellas may not be long, but they can certainly pack a punch in a short space of time!

Favourite Quote:

There is no “meaning” or “higher purpose” to your afflilction. It is not a “gift” or a “test” or an opportunity for personal growth and transformation. It will not heal your angry, wounded soul or make you a kinder, more compassionate person who is less judgemental of others. It will not ennoble your carers (“She’s a saint“) or enrich the lives of those around you who have always loved and adored you. It will just make them sad. Nor will it bring you closer to the higher being or liberate you from your formerly petty concerns….All it will do is bring you closer to your own inevitable end.

Title: The Swimmers
Author: Julie Otsuka
ISBN: 9780241543887
Imprint: Fig Tree
Published: 16 March 2022 (first published 22 February 2022)
Format: Hardback 
Pages: 179
Dates Read: 19 October 2022 - 22 October 2022
  • This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are this land’s first storytellers.

16 thoughts on “The Swimmers | Julie Otsuka #USAnovella

    1. I’d be keen to read either Buddha or Emperor after reading this. I loved Otsuka’s poetic style and interesting use of voices. I enjoy novels that dig into the emotional experience of the characters and/or author.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Good post and review. I couldn’t finish this book–not because it was bad, because it was hitting too close to home. My Mom is 85 and after years of no access to a pool is at last able to swim several times a week. But she is “slipping” as we say about the elderly when the end is edging closer, so Swimmers was like a foretaste of what’s too come. I had to put it down. If you are interested in my review (no pressure at all) https://hopewellslibraryoflife.wordpress.com/2022/04/01/review-swimmers-a-novel-by-julie-otsuka/

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  2. I loved The Buddha in the Attic so am very keen to read this. Ruth Fitzmaurice has written a lovely book about swimming and how it helped her deal with her husband’s Motor Neurone Disease – I Found My Tribe – and it is really affecting.

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    1. Thanks for the recommendation. I’d love for sea swimming to become a bigger part of my life – but I cannot stand really cold water, so we’d have to move further north for this to be something I could actually do!!

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  3. I was a swimmer as a kid and resumed again in my late 30s, training 10kms/week to swim in Masters competitions. Right through to my mid 60s. And then I stopped. I’m still not sure why. I think it all just began to feel too hard.

    I think autofiction is a way of dealing with stuff. As you say, the stories we tell change over time, so autobiography is not ‘fact’, just the spin on the facts that suits the author at the time of writing. In that way autofiction is more honest, a representation of how the author is feeling about life up till now.

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    1. My body temp has changed, so now I simply cannot or do not enjoy swimming in water that is too cold. I could never do one of those polar bear swimming events! It means my window for swimming each year is getting smaller.

      Autofiction also allows the author to completely fabricate some events to make a good story too. I’m assuming her mother’s swimming pool didn’t really develop systemic cracking issues – it was simply a (very good) device on which to turn a story about the onset of dementia.

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  4. Hard to believe…I cannot remember when I went swimming for the last time!
    2018….wait…I did take off my shoes and walk in the water of the North Sea as it lapped the beach on the island of Vlieland (see Google)
    The pools here are chock-full all the time and open water is filthy. People often write books when their personal life is in a mess (Turning by Jessica J. Lee – I Found My Tribe by Ruth Ftizmaurice – Wild by Cheryl Strayed). This is a genre that I have to be in the right mood for…I have to feel strong otherwise I will be overwhelmed by other people’s struggles. Great review….!

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    1. Sorry I missed this comment in the AusReading Month rush Nancy!

      Still not warm enough here for me to swim. I love reading about the messes other people’s lives are in – makes me feel better about my own 🙂
      Or maybe it helps me to prepare for any eventuality.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I don’t know if I’ll find the time to participate in Novellas in November, but I have lined up a couple of titles, just in case. These include The Swimmers and Passing and I really enjoyed your posts about both these books. I didn’t realise The Swimmers is autofiction, that is an interesting fact.

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  6. Having just read this book myself, I can say that this is a most excellent review! I enjoyed it very much and definitely want to read her other books.

    I’m glad you brought up the subject of “autofiction” as at first I wasn’t sure if I was reading fiction or a memoir about her mother or a mixture or what.

    I hope the temperature goes up enough for you to start swimming again!

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