"What are days for?" Philip Larkin once asked in a poem. He concluded: "Days are where we live."
In her poignant third novel The Swimmers, Julie Otsuka traces the accumulation of days that makes up a life. She begins with a portrait of a public pool's regular swimmers. Hailing from diverse walks of life, they seek respite from "aboveground afflictions": "bad backs, fallen arches, shattered dreams, broken hearts, anxiety, melancholia, anhedonia". For the older paddlers, "the letting go has begun, the crow's-feet are fanning out slightly, but inexorably, like cracks on a windshield, from the corners of our eyes". Among them is Alice, a retired lab technician slowly disappearing down the rabbit-hole of dementia.
It is detail, rather than plot, that provides the impetus in Otsuka's narratives. She meticulously chronicles the swimmers' rituals, eccentricities and niggles, relegating the larger dramas of their lives to the background. Like daily life, there is repetition, and consequently the prose falls into a rhythm that echoes their dedicated movement up and down the lanes.
The swimmers' states of flow are interrupted by the sudden appearance of a crack at the bottom of the pool. Initially believed by management to be benign, when more appear the pool closes suddenly, casting the swimmers adrift. At this point, the narrative homes in on Alice as she is moved into a residential aged-care facility.
The abruptness of this shift underscores its brutal realism. Alice's diagnosis of Picks disease is a hard line that designates a clear "before" and "after"; "like life itself, it is terminal". Moving the action away from the pool throws into relief the way it enabled the swimmers to push their anxieties to the edges of their consciousness for the duration of their swims. It is a container, like a day, in which the intimations of our mortality can be submerged.
Alice's dementia prompts a bewildering excavation of the past. Among the fragments of memory that float to the surface are snippets of her time in an internment camp during World War Two, an episode drawn from Otsuka's own family's experiences. Alice is imprisoned again, not only by her disease, but by the paternalistic regime of the ironically named "Belavista", where her companions include a bus driver, a professor of English, and a retired soap opera actress. Like the young brides in her previous novel The Buddha In The Attic, they are propelled not by will but by the tidal suck of history and personal circumstance, their differences melting away as they are borne inexorably towards their collective fate.
The Swimmers is a beautifully rendered exploration of vulnerability and fate, and the respite we seek from both.
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