Julie Otsuka: The Swimmers

Otsuka’s opening paragraph is so damn good, I have to quote in full. She writes about “The Underground Pool”:

The pool is located deep underground, in a large cavernous chamber many feet beneath the streets of our town. Some of us come here because we are injured, and need to heal. We suffer from bad backs, fallen arches, shattered dreams, broken hearts, anxiety, melancholia, anhedonia, the usual above-ground afflictions. Others of us are employed at the college nearby and prefer to take our lunch breaks down below, in the waters, far away from the harsh glares of our colleagues and screens. Some of us come here to escape, if only for an hour, our disappointing marriages on land. Many of us live in the neighborhood and simply love to swim. One of us—Alice, a retired lab technician now in the early stages of dementia—comes here because she always has. And even though she may not remember the combination to her locker or where she put her towel, the moment she slips into the water she knows what to do. Her stroke is long and fluid, her kick is strong, her mind clear. “Up there,” she says, “I’m just another little old lady. But down here, at the pool, I’m myself.”

After the pool shuts down, Otsuka shifts her focus on Alice who suffers from her deteriorating dementia. Even though the change is quite disrupting, the stories comes out poignant and heartbreaking. Otsuka’s writing is just masterful—as you can already tell from her opening paragraph. It’s a slim, sensational read.