The Swimmers by Julia Otsuka

I read Otsuka’s 2 prior novels many years ago and just loved them. The Buddha in the Attic was the first book where I really cried while reading.  It’s historical fiction taking place in the area where I lived for over 50 years and as I was reading I came across the names of nearby towns. Tears came and then real sobs about the Japanese interment because I even recognized some of the Japanese names.  It’s told from the 1st person plural point of view (“we” and “our”) of a group of Japanese-American women.   

The Swimmers 
by Julie Otsuka – 2022
read by Traci Kato-Kiriyama  4h 6m
Rating 9 / contemp fiction

Otsuka’s other book, When the Emperor Was Divine, was published several years prior and is about the experiences of one small family in or with the camps.  The point of view varies.  

Both books are written with Otsuka’s style which uses short sentences and phrases with a strong sense of poetry and restraint which makes it really quite emotional. The Swimmers is much the same and in a way a continuation of the plot or theme of the books,  but that’s not apparent until Chapter 4, close to half-way through.  The old Japanese-American woman here is losing her memory which includes the camps where she lived as a little girl.   These stories might be very tightly linked but that’s not understandable unless you’ve read the first two books.  (They’re somewhat biographical from Otsuka’s mother’s side of the family.)

I won’t say more except that if you haven’t read the first two books you won’t know how this book fits in. That said, what you will get is the story of a group of swimmers who do the same thing day after day and one of the women is losing her memory.  A crack develops in the pool and the swimmers go their own ways. Then there are two or three other stories about Alice, one of the swimmers. 

Otsuka’s first novel, When the Emperor Was Divine, is written in the 1st person plural – her second novel, The Buddha in the Attic is written in 2nd person.  The Swimmers uses both.  Sad to say it’s about a decade between books from Otsuka so most of the reviewers don’t see the connection.   😦 

One more thing is that I lost my mother who was 97 and in a nursing home only a few months ago and that made this book more poignant. But she didn’t have dementia except for some residual elements of Covid-19 and that was a blessing.   

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