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Julie Otsuka’s ‘The Swimmers’ plumbs the depths of community and memory

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Julie Otsuka’s new novel, “The Swimmers,” begins with a dive into a subterranean community pool and the people who frequent it.

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“In our ‘real lives,’” Otsuka writes, “we are overeaters, underachievers, dog walkers, cross-dressers, compulsive knitters (Just one more row), secret hoarders, minor poets, trailing spouses…” Once in the water, though, the swimmers are “one of three things: fast-lane people, medium-lane people or the slow.”

They’re a microcosm of America, cataloged in narrative first-person plural. Most are unnamed, few are fleshed out. The reader knows only that they’re here to take refuge from their above-ground lives. One, we learn, is a memory-imparied woman named Alice. When a crack suddenly appears and spreads like a spiderweb along the pool floor, the swimmers experience familiar stages of grief — denial, anger, depression — until authorities finally close the pool altogether and they scatter to the winds.

Then the novel flip-turns into something else entirely, focusing on Alice and her journey deeper and deeper into dementia. In a chapter titled “Diem Perdidi,” which is Latin for “I have lost a day,” we read about everything Alice still remembers — and the growing list of things she does not. We hear from officials at the Belavista care home, where the quality of your view depends on the amount your family is willing to spend, and then from Alice’s daughter, who struggles with the stress and guilt of it all.

I came away from “The Swimmers” feeling emotionally drained and a bit like the victim of a literary bait-and-switch. But after further reflection — and with the added perspective of book-club discussion — I realized that Otsuka’s unconventional style and story structure could be part of the overall message: that each of us, every day, is just trying to stay afloat.

Suzanne Perez is a longtime journalist covering education and general news for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. Suzanne reviews new books for KMUW and is the co-host with Beth Golay of the Books & Whatnot podcast. Follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.