Julie Otsuka has good rhythm, sentences that move to a satisfying beat. Even as her tone shifts — from tender to funny to cynical to sinister — the beat goes on uninterrupted. In this, her third novel, the narrative has a steady flow. The Swimmers traces the cracks that develop in an underground pool, and in a woman’s mind, and the slow and unavoidable deterioration of both.
It opens with an introduction to the pool that reads like a guided tour from the swimmers themselves. We learn about their rituals: ‘Some of us have to swim 100 laps every day, others… until the bad thoughts go away (Sister Catherine, lane two).’ There are dos and don’ts and people to watch out for — ‘tailgaters, lane Nazis, arm flailers’. The regulars are quietly suspicious of the everchanging lifeguards — ‘land people, we say’ — and the ‘binge swimmers’ who pitch up every new year. ‘Defer judgment if you can. For they are temporary defilers of our waters, weak-willed interlopers who will not be with us for long.’
For the true swimmers, the pool is a passion, a solace, an addiction; they feel more at home in the water than on dry land. Which makes the crack that develops in the deep end of lane four all the more heart-wrenching. It starts out as a ‘tiny hairline fracture, no longer than a child’s forearm’, disappears and reappears, then multiplies. There’s a gentle but insistent hum of impending doom as inspectors work through a process of elimination to determine the cause. Early defectors take their leave; conspiracy theories abound.