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The Swimmers

Julie Otsuka's The Swimmers is a metaphor-heavy read. The entire first half details the dread felt by pool-goers when a small crack appears at the bottom of Lap 4. The second half is a detailed, punchy account of a woman's struggle with dementia.

Unlike other "literary" novels, The Swimmers doesn't try to be sneaky with its metaphors. Cracks spread; activities become harder and, suddenly, not possible at all. Regrets ("Should I have swam more laps every day? Should I have done sudoku more often?") become a way to absorb blame. Disagreements ("He always swims too fast. He never complimented me enough.") shrink.

What was interesting about this read for me, though, is I found myself applying the crack in the pool to my own situation. I'm cast off from home, unable to return to Kyiv until (if?) peace returns.

I remember being frustrated in my literary analysis class in college because people would try to argue which methodology was superior. Historical context? The author's intent? Feminist/race theory? It seemed obvious to me: each reader brings his own experience and interpretation to art. The Swimmers is not, objectively, about the war in Ukraine, or the plight of refugees. It's just not. But that's how the story spoke to me, from where I'm at, and I'll treasure the book as a vessel of my emotions and toils because of that.

I really think the book is worth reading, even if you haven't lost someone to dementia or lost your home. But we're all going through something, and that's the point of stories: to escape, yes, but also to process our own story through a different lens.

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