The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka

The first two chapters of The Swimmers, ‘The Underground Pool’ and ‘The Crack’ are highly reminiscent of the author’s acclaimed The Buddha in the Attic. Like that novel The Swimmers at first seems to implement a playful choral ‘we’ as our perspective. The ‘we’ in question are the people who regularly swim at a local pool in an unnamed town. Otsuka details the swimmers’ relationship to the pool and swimming, often poking (gentle) fun at them. While she does often differentiate between the swimmers, contrasting their routines etc., they remain a united entity for much of these chapters. The pool becomes a microcosm of the real world and Otsuka’s satire is particularly effective when a mysterious ‘crack’ appears in the pool, causing confusion and uncertainty among the pool-goers. Some panic and flee, some quit swimming altogether, some begin spreading conspiracy theories about who is behind the crack, some keep on swimming and refuse to look at the crack, and so forth.
The tone is definitely the defining characteristic of these two chapters as the characters are beside the point. They serve a comedic function and their personalities are intentionally kept off the page. Repetition is of course a consequence of employing a choral point of view, especially one that at times comes across as a joke that has gone on too long. These two chapters/stories could have easily been condensed into one and I think it would have made for a more effective and engaging read.

The following chapters/stories revolve around one of the swimmers, but once again the author implements more indirect narrative devices (often there is the ‘you’). The character in question is Alice, a Japanese American woman who shows signs of dementia. While the author does give us an overview of her life and background, by referring to her as ‘you’ or by avoiding using her name she effectively makes Alice into a blank-slate, or perhaps, less of a blank-slate and more of the ‘every-elderly-woman’, ie. the epitome of the elderly person experiencing memory loss, confusion, and an increased lack of motor skills. Her daughter, who happens to be a writer, too was very much a non-character, as she is often referred to as ‘you’. There was a lack of intimacy and depth in these characters (and their relationship to one another) that diluted the impact of what could have been a potentially poignant story. There is even one chapter from the point of ‘Belavista’ a ‘memory residence’ where Alice is eventually taken to. Here the author wryly points to the way elderly people who are no longer able to live independently and need more help than what their relatives can provide them with are treated by these places (eg the patronizing language).

The specificity with which Otsuka writes about Alice’s ‘dementia’ definitely rang true to life as I am temporarily living with someone who has dementia and boy oh boy it is definitely not a walk in the park watching someone slowly lose their physical and mental capacity. Still, while many moments struck me for their realism, Otsuka’s playful tone became a bit jarring and repetitive. I would have liked for this book to have more emotional depth and for characters (any of the characters really) to be more than names on a page. Nevertheless, I encourage prospective readers to make up their own minds about this one!

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

The Rock Eaters: Stories by Brenda Peynado

The Rock Eaters: Stories will probably appeal to fans of macabre tales, such as the ones authored by Samanta Schweblin, Mariana Enríquez, and possibly even Yōko Ogawa. This collection of speculative short stories is a highly metaphorical one. Brenda Peynado uses magical realism, aliens, dystopian and fantastic scenarios, to discuss immigration, xenophobia, and class disparity. While I appreciated the issues Peynado tackles within her narratives these stories seemed often allegorical to the point of distraction. Much of the imagery was repetitive and the grotesque elements embedded within these narratives came across as unnecessarily garish and sensationalistic.

Peynado’s fabulist tales are certainly more successful than those stories that venture into the sci-fi/dystopian realm; they either read like knock-off Black Mirror episodes or as incredibly derivative of other works. There is one story, in particular, that seemed to rip off Memory Police, and another one—starring aliens being persecuted and oppressed—seemed a bit too reminiscent of films such as District 9.
While the author certainly plays around with different genres the tone and style of these stories weren’t all that varied. They are incredibly depressing and negative. The characters blur together, seeming to share the same kind of generic personality. The author often uses a choral perspective, ‘we/us’, and this struck me as the classic stylistic device used in creative writing classes (‘experiment’ with ‘perspective’ and all that). It just didn’t work for me. I also found that these stories didn’t have much to say about anything other than underlining how crap everything is. There seems to be not one ray of hope within these tales. The lack of lgbtq+ characters also seemed a bit annoying (one story has a same-sex relationship). I also did not care for the way in which these tales handle mental health and diseases (that one where people fall asleep for years, or the one with the wife in a come).
I can think of many other books that discuss similar topics with much more depth (The Undocumented Americans, works by Patricia Engel and Edwidge Danticat). In this collection, the author seems to sacrifice character and story development to style. This may indeed work for other readers but it did zilch for me.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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The Mothers by Brit Bennett

“Grief was not a line, carrying you infinitely further from loss. You never knew when you would be sling-shot backward into its grip.”

The first time I picked up The Mothers was back in 2017. After reading a few chapters I set aside thinking that it was not for me. And then came the advent of The Vanishing Half. To say that I like that novel would be an understatement. I’ve read it twice and twice I fell in love with it. After rereading it I found myself wondering whether this time around I would actually be able to appreciate The Mothers so I gave it another shot. If I only had to rate this novel in terms of its literary merits this would easily get a 5 stars. While I wasn’t overly keen the mother’s ‘chorus’, I remain in awe of Brit Bennett’s luminous prose. The reason why I cannot sing this book’s praises lies in its storyline, specifically in the way Nadia’s abortion is handled.

The book is set in a conservative and religious Black community in Southern California. ‘The mothers’ are an older group of church-going women and their Greek chorus is interspersed throughout the narrative. Their traditional values are reflected through the judgments they make about the rest of their community. They seem particularly disapproving of young people and their ‘inhibited’ ways. The actual story follows three people: Nadia Turner, who is seventeen and grieving the death of her mother (who committed suicide); the pastor’s son, Luke Sheppard, who is twenty-one and working in a diner after an injury ended his promising football career came to pastor’s son; Aubrey, a pious girl who is living with her older sister. Nadia and Luke begin sleeping together but their casual relationship is complicated when Nadia becomes pregnant. Nadia, who is desperate to leave her town behind and wants to college, decides to get an abortion and Luke comes up with the money for it. But, when he fails to collect from her after her appointment at the clinic Nadia is deeply hurt. The two no longer spend time together and Nadia becomes close to Aubrey. In spite of their different personalities, the two feel seemingly unmoored. Their bond at the beginning of the story is one of the highlights of the novel. Alas, all good things come to an end and Nadia goes off to college while Aubrey remains in their hometown. Over the next few years Luke and Aubrey fall in love and when Nadia returns home things get complicated.

spoilers below

I was not a fan of this love triangle, which was at best unimaginative. Luke was a lustreless and often cowardly character. I genuinely thought that Nadia and Aubrey had more chemistry then either Luke/Nadia or Luke/Aubrey. But I could have looked past this rather clichèd love triangle (one girl is the wild and beautiful one, the other is the quiet plainer looking one) if it hadn’t been for the way both the characters and the narrative itself punish Nadia for her ‘sin’. Throughout the narrative abortion is associated with being a sin, a crime, an abhorrent act. None of the majors character challenge this view. There is not one voice of reason. Nadia, years later, is haunted by the ‘what if’. She ends her pregnancy early on yet she believes that she knows that the ‘baby’ was a boy and is wracked by guilt envisioning him growing up. I am not about to argue that abortions are not traumatic experiences or that the person who chooses to get an abortion does so lightheartedly but come on, having Nadia be haunted forever seems a tad too much. Who cares that she’s gone to college or soon to be a lawyer? Her life is forever defined by her abortion.
Luke is horrible about the whole thing (piling on the guilt by also going on about ‘our baby boy’). And you might say that of course every person in their community is going to shame Nadia or think her sinful. But, why does the narrative reinforces this? Nadia is ostracised and by the end of the novel it is implied that by she will never be happy or content or able to settle down.
Luke on the other hand is not punished. Nadia is made into the story’s villain as she not only gets an abortion but she also betrays her best friend (again we have the implication that the ‘type’ of woman who gets an abortion has loose morals). So ‘other woman’ and sinful Nadia is given a miserable ending while kind god-fearing Aubrey alongside Luke are blessed with a child. Puh-lease.

The thing is, I may have been more understanding if this novel had been set in the early 20th century. After all, I love Toni Morrison’s Sula which shares quite a few similarities with Bennett’s novel. But, Morrison never condemns Sula herself. She makes it quite clear that she becomes her community’s scapegoat. The complicated friendship between Sula and Nel remains the focus of the narrative, whereas here Luke takes the centre-stage.

In spite of my issues with the characters and their storylines I did find Bennett’s prose to be beautiful. There are some poignant observation on grief, loneliness, and friendship.

While I recognise that Bennett is a fantastic writer this novel’s not to subtle anti-abortion message did not sit well with me and because of this I cannot on a good conscience recommend it. Read Sula instead.

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