By Rebecca Foster
Short novels can convey much truth in a low page count, ramping up the psychological intensity through pared-back scenes and a focus on one character or a few key ones. Eschewing backstory and subplots, they dive deep into one situation. Tides, the debut novel by Canadian author Sara Freeman, and The Swimmers, Julie Otsuka’s third novel of the Japanese American experience, both come in at under 250 pages or so, and concentrate on a woman who has come unmoored from her life and, for a time, finds solace at the water.
Tides by Sara Freeman
Mara has left behind the trappings of her old life – husband, brother, home – and boarded a bus for another country (presumably crossing from Canada into New England). She heads for the small coastal town of Rome, where she’ll bounce between motels, hostels, and friends’ houses. Her phone is turned off so she can’t receive messages. No one here knows a thing about her. She’s free to reinvent herself, but the past won’t stop haunting her. Gradually we learn what happened: her daughter was stillborn and she couldn’t cope with the contrast with her brother and sister-in-law’s healthy son, especially because they lived in the apartment below hers. After she made a scene that caused her family to question her sanity, she fled.
After Mara gets a job in a wine store, she starts furtively sleeping upstairs in the stock room to save her money. Her boss, Simon, eventually grasps her situation and tolerates it. His wife recently left, taking their three-year-old daughter with her, and Mara is sorry for him. These two damaged loners start opening bottles of wine to get drunk together after hours, and the inevitable happens. Simon breaks the affair off suddenly when his wife and daughter return. Mara continues working at the shop and tries to act normally, but knowing what part she is to play in this family’s life and business is a conundrum and drives her toward another tipping point. (The book has an absolutely perfect last line: “Where to?”)
Freeman describes all of this with laser precision, pulling in just enough of Mara’s history to ground the story and account for her motivations. The narration is fragmentary and there are no speech marks. I idly asked myself if a first-person perspective would have made the novel more intimate – like Brood by Jackie Polzin, voiced by a woman who has lost a baby and is jealous of her best friend’s easy experience of motherhood.
I also had the peculiar issue of this storyline seeming too familiar. I thought of Talking to the Dead by Helen Dunmore and Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller, both of which have a mother disappearing at the sea. And in both Sunburn by Laura Lippman and Ladder of Years by Anne Tyler, a woman leaves her life behind at a beach and starts over, incognito, in a coastal town. Aspects of Mara’s new life also reminded me of Luster of Raven Leilani.
It was a challenge, then, to assess Mara’s story on its own terms. Tides is a little grittier than the predecessors I’ve mentioned. Mara – her name bringing to mind at once the sea and bitterness – has a devil-may-care attitude and makes life-changing decisions on a whim. Her impetuous nature reflects the fact that she feels she’s lost everything and has nothing more to give up. Even minor characters, like Jean, the friend Mara stays with for a short time, are similarly marked by bereavement. This makes Tides a piercing, melancholy portrait of a troubled woman.
The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka
There’s a similar tone to The Swimmers, which zeroes in on a woman with dementia. Otsuka is not what you’d call prolific; her 20-year career has produced just three novellas, which form a sort of trilogy of the Japanese American experience of the 20th century. In When the Emperor Was Divine (2002), her debut, a Japanese man is arrested as a potential enemy combatant in Berkeley, California in 1942. His wife, son, and daughter are given just a few days to pack their things and evacuate to an internment camp in the desert. The Buddha in the Attic (2011) was essentially a prequel about Japanese mail order brides in early 1900s San Francisco. The main character in The Swimmers, Alice, was sent to a desert camp with her mother and brother in 1945. Is she the little girl from When the Emperor Was Divine? Because those characters were never given names, I couldn’t be sure, but I think it would be safe to call this a spiritual if not a literal sequel to Otsuka’s first novel.
The Buddha in the Attic was one of my first literary encounters with the first-person plural. Otsuka uses it again here, in several different chapters, as well as the second person in another few. It takes impressive determination to never resort to ordinary first and third person narration, and these rarer perspectives do lend novelty to what could have felt like a common plot. The first two chapters, “The Underground Pool” and “The Crack” – the chapters are almost discrete enough to deem them linked short stories – are set at a pool that, for the title swimmers, serves as a locus of escape and safety. Far from real-world concerns, it’s somewhere they can be themselves and transcend age and limitations. In a sense, swimming becomes an addiction, and when mysterious cracks develop in the pool and force its closure, they’re crushed.
On the first page we’re introduced to Alice, who becomes central to the final three chapters.
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.
In the early chapters, the perspective feels too spread out, with repeated “Some of us…” constructions and far too many parenthetical phrases. The result is poetic but generic. As an example, here is part of a long paragraph describing the swimmers in the aggregate:
in the middle of long and protracted divorces (It’s year seven), infertile, in our prime, in a rut, in a rush, in remission, in the third week of chemo, in deep and unrelenting emotional despair (You never get used to it), but down below, at the pool, we are only one of three things: fast-lane people, medium-lane people or the slow.
Once Alice is established as the central character, my enjoyment soared. I’d wearied of staying at the surface with lots of characters and wanted to go deep with just one. But the final three chapters also broke my heart. “Diem Perdidi” is addressed to “you,” Alice’s daughter, a novelist who does her best to look after her mother (to what extent might this be autobiographical for Otsuka? I wondered). “She remembers…” versus “She does not remember…” statements proliferate, depicting a mind that’s slipping away. “Later, your mother says, ‘Didn’t everything used to have a name?’”
In “Belavista,” Alice has been moved to a memory care home. She’s now the “you” being addressed, while the first-person plural is for the staff members who deliver her new resident initiation and tour. The rundown of Belavista’s rules, spoken and unspoken, is tongue-in-cheek but also appalling. It’s a depressingly commercial venture, based on surveillance rather than compassion, and the predicted course of Alice’s decline, as extrapolated from others’, is swift and inexorable. Though I found this section very difficult to read, it’s so clever how Otsuka plays with voice and perspective.
For the final chapter, “Euroneuro,” it’s back to Alice’s daughter as we watch the endgame play out. We learn that Alice’s own mother was at this care home and lived to 100. The family precedent only induces further guilt in you, the daughter, who don’t visit as often as you should. But can we really blame you? Who would want to see Alice wheelchair bound, mute for her final two years? Once she’s gone, you go through her things with your father, throwing most of it out. It’s devastating what is left; how little a life boils down to. “(‘An avid swimmer,’ ‘A not-so-great driver,’ ‘A terrific mother,’ ‘The light of my life.’)”
I’d previously found Otsuka’s writing too subtle, but The Swimmers represents a real leap forward. I admired its techniques for moving readers through the minds of the characters, alternating range with profundity and irony with sadness. Like Tides, it’s often painful to read, but an admirable effort to plumb the depths of women’s lives.
Rebecca Foster is an associate editor of Bookmarks magazine and a judge of the 2022 McKitterick Prize. From Maryland, USA, she has been a freelance proofreader and book reviewer for over eight years, and a blogger at Bookish Beck for nearly seven.
Sara Freeman, Tides (Granta, 2022). 978-1783787586, 256 pp., hardback.
Julie Otsuka, The Swimmers (Fig Tree, 2022). 978-0241543887, 192 pp., hardback.