The Swimmers is 192 pages long. That’s it.
192 pages of lists, factoids, and snippets of the day of a group of swimmers who frequent a recreational pool.
The story (if you can even call it that) emerges slowly as you hear a woman named Alice mentioned from time to time. As one of the swimmers, she is left at loose ends when the pool closes.
You also realize that she is having memory problems that are only made worse with the closing of the pool.
Most of the story is told in observation by an unnamed omnipotent narrator describing (in very exacting detail) the members of the pool.
All the tiny details that make these strangers different, aside from the one thing that bonds them together: the pool.
The second half of the story is told by Alice’s daughter, who watches her mother’s slow fall into a loss of self as her memory slips away.
The way people can bond over a similar obsession is so fascinating to see play out. As someone who also uses physical activity as a way to reset, the mentalities of all these swimmers are easy to relate to.
How the fact that no one will ever quite understand their need to swim like the other swimmers.
Or the way that when stripped of that underwater freedom they are left feeling without a home.
It sounds so grandiose and exaggerated as a reaction, but it isn’t at all.
As Otsuka points out, it’s the little things like your swim routine that give a life structure and meaning.
It is a heartbreaking story but also feels so familiar in its ordinariness.
A child watching their parents age and mourn all the time they didn’t spend together (it’s never enough) happens on a daily basis.
But that’s a lot of what the story gets so right. The ordinary is incredibly important when it’s happening to you.
As I said, the book is short, and necessarily so. Julie Otsuka’s meandering writing style is incredibly beautiful and evocative, but I can’t imagine the book being longer.
It’s almost more impressive how impactful she is in less than 200 pages. Its length also makes it a great choice for any reading group. If you are looking to discuss the book, check out these The Swimmers book club questions to get started.
Overall, you are unlikely to read another book quite like The Swimmers. Even if the style is not your cup of tea (and I wholeheartedly agree it’s not normally mine either), it’s so unique that you should give it a read anyway. If it hits you just right, it will make you feel a lot of things.
And what more can you ask of a good book?