The Swimmers – Julia Otsuka

Chosen by Rachel

The Swimmers is about Alice, a Japanese American woman in the early stages of dementia. She swims daily but when a crack appears in the pool (ie in her memory) she has to stop swimming and move to a home. Her daughter visits, solemn, grieving, feeling guilt and harbouring regrets over her relationship with her mother.

Alice tries to remember all that she can and as a result we are treated to many fleeting moments of her life, packing a lot of content into a minimum of pages.

The structure of the book is unusual with five chapters which at first all seem to be distinct and disconnected from one another, but upon closer inspection are all steps in Alice’s dementia. Even the point of view alters often in order to showcase the marginalisation of the ailing and ageing in society: Collective, singular, third person, second person (or we, you, Alice, she).

Alice forgets about the crack the moment she gets out of the water and whenever somebody mentions it to her in the locker room she looks at them as though they were crazy. “Crack,” she says. “There’s no crack.”

● My word of advice with this book is to read every page and every sentence carefully. Post bookclub I re-read chapter 2 and felt like every sentence was a revelation I had not initially appreciated. Now, this book is haunting me more than any other with memory loss as a theme. How common and devastating the disease can be is intimately detailed, as is how such members of our society are pushed to the fringes and spoken about rather than with. The Swimmers is incredibly clever and once I understood it I loved it immensely. The problem is I didn’t fully understand and appreciate all its complexities on my first reading. – Rachel

● Well, well, well, The Swimmers certainly took a few different tumble-turns once the meaning was revealed at bookclub. When a crack is not a crack and the author is so goddamn clever it leaves you questioning basically everything you’ve just read. If you are reading this book literally (like me) then what can I say – the first half is a real slog, the second half is beautiful, poignant and devastating. – Suzy

● This beautifully written novel depicts the life of Alice as she deteriorates mentally from dementia. Each part of the novel represents a stage in her decline, which was very sad. The narration was a huge player as it represented the stages of Alice’s decline and how her mind was slowly deteriorating. It is so cleverly told by Otsuka that after finishing, it took some reflection to really grasp the understanding of each stage. There were parts I loved and other parts I didn’t fully appreciate until discussing in bookclub. – Jodie

● I didn’t understand the connection between the first and second part of this book. If I had done, it would have been a whole lot more enjoyable, but instead I just found the first section tedious. Re-reading the first bit with new knowledge revealed an incredibly clever and detailed reflection of Alice’s decline with dementia. It was an intriguing account of memory loss and a deteriorating life which I found enthralling. A pity that I didn’t really get this book and I really wish I’d known what was really going on right from the start.


Published 2022
192 pages

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: