Book Review | The Swimmers (ARC)

I received an advance reader’s copy (ARC) of The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka. Since this version is just a proof and not the final version, I won’t quote directly and will keep my comments general.

The Swimmers follows the various people who exercise at their community pool. Their lives are shattered, however, when a mysterious crack appears at the bottom of the pool. The ramifications of this unexplained fissure have wide ramifications.

This was a rather odd novella, honestly.

The first half focuses on the lives of the swimmers, particularly how they experience life when swimming laps. Otsuka really can paint a vivid picture of setting, and that coupled with her skillful portrayal of emotions, makes this a compelling read. As a former swimmer, a lot of what she said rang true. It was weird, though, how everyone reacted when the crack appeared. I never got an explanation for why it was treated as such a bizarre, borderline-supernatural event, and why it happened all over the world in other pools? What on earth was that about? I still don’t know.

The second half of the story, though, after the crack appears and all the results spin out, is quite different. The narrative then follows the life of one of the swimmers, Alice, and her family—particularly someone I assume to be her child, though that character is never named. April is aging and has dementia, and we see through various perspectives what happens as she is put into an assisted living home and all that comes after. It’s quite emotional and compelling, making the reader face questions of what will happen to them when they get to April’s age, and how they will feel. You’re really immersed in these character’s minds. It’s a very melancholy story.

However, I felt that the first half of this did not align well with the second; the tones are so disparate. Moving from the strangely obsessed swimmers practically having existential crises when the pool they loved develops a crack to the somber downward slide of an aging woman was a transition I didn’t make easily.

That said, there was a different aspect of this that I liked—the exploration of how the incarceration of Japanese Americans in WWII affected Alice even long after she was released from the camp. Otsuka weaves a subtle condemnation of racism within this story, and it was cool to see some aspects of my own family history reflected on the page.

But all in all, I feel like this book and I never really found our rhythm. It has so much that I responded to, and the emotional connection was certainly there! I felt a lot while reading this, but I also still walked away feeling as if I’d still missed something somehow. The shifting in tone and topic at the midway point was something I couldn’t quite get my head around, nor was the entire impetus for the pool closing. And for all that, I feel bad, because it seems like this author has lots of accolades for previous works, and I can see her talent. Maybe it’s just this particular novella of hers didn’t work for me, but her other stuff might? Who knows.

The Swimmers will be published on February 22nd, 2022!

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