There is a minimalism to Julie Otsuka's work. The sentences in her slim books dive right into the details. About once a decade, readers are treated to a novel of Otsuka's well-honed words: "The Buddha in the Attic" in 2011 and "When the Emperor Was Divine" in 2002. So, I am thrilled that her latest book, "The Swimmers," is another artfully refined story, even when it delves into the most painful parts of life.
"The Swimmers" aptly begins in a chapter about lap swimmers. A collective sense of this community appears with individual concerns surfacing through the chorus of voices, showing how this narrative about swimming also represents the way we each live our lives, stroking our own way but within the company of others.
As readers learn about these characters lap by lap, Alice emerges: "a retired lab technician now in the early stages of dementia." The book eventually turns from the group of swimmers to Alice and her health. The book's chapters build upon each other but also hold the pleasure of complete, distinct stories.
To address both this collective and then personal narrative, point of view assumes a major role. At times, the novel takes on an uncommon first-person plural point of view, where a collective "we" tells the story. At other moments, a "they" takes over the point of view, or a "you" guides the story's movement. These shifting perspectives remind readers of our own changing position in relationship to the story and life.
Sometimes, we are at the center and then the periphery. We might be the ones not quite remembering or conversely taking on the role of the caregiving daughter. We are part of and then we are apart from this journey.
In a stand-out chapter titled "Diem Perdidi," Otsuka focuses on Alice, using a more standard third-person "she" perspective. The author employs the anaphoric repetition of "she remembers" or "she does not remember" to guide this powerfully sad section on dementia's progression: "She remembers the number assigned to her family by the government right after the start of the war. 13611 ... She remembers the scorpions and red ants. She remembers the taste of dust."
The chapter lets Alice recall the big moments, like her incarceration as a Japanese American during World War II, as well as the small moments of those years, down to the dust, even though she can't recall what she said a few minutes earlier to her husband or daughter.
In "The Swimmers," Otsuka beautifully renders the particularities of a life fully using every word, including the pronouns. She has a way of presenting seemingly objective details, but the emotions seep through the minutiae so that we know and feel much about Alice and those who care for her. With virtuosity, Otsuka hands us each crystallized inch of this tale that reflects a life — the pages memorialize what can't be forgotten.
Abby Manzella is the author of "Migrating Fictions: Gender, Race, and Citizenship in U.S. Internal Migrations," winner of the Society for the Study of American Women Writers Book Award.
By: Julie Otsuka.
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 192 pages, $23.
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