Picks and Pans Review: Learning to Swim

UPDATED 05/20/1985 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 05/20/1985 at 01:00 AM EDT

by Graham Swift

Last year Swift's novel, Waterland, a darkly engrossing book, was a success in the U.S. So now this country is getting a slender volume of the young British writer's short stories. The title story opens with a most provocative sentence: "Mrs. Singleton had three times thought of leaving her husband." Mrs. Singleton is on vacation, lying on a beach, while her husband, an unemotional engineer, teaches their son to swim. Swift shifts the point of view to each of these three and gives a startlingly layered picture of the complex ways in which the most intimate relationships truly function. "Gabor" is the story of a family that adopts a Hungarian refugee and the impact this little boy has on everyone—especially the narrator, a boy who is expected to be Gabor's guide to the British world. In a sometimes funny story called "Hoffmeier's Antelope," the narrator is a young man who gets a job in London and moves in with his Uncle Walter, a zoo curator obsessed with a tiny breed of antelope that is dying out. Swift's stories are wonderfully realized; what distinguishes them most is their complexity. The language is direct, simple; the prose clean. But the subtleties unpeel like artichoke petals—right to the heart. His first sentences are splendid harbingers. "Tell me," he begins a tale called "The Watch," "what is more magical, more sinister, more malign yet consoling, more expressive of the constancy—and fickleness—of fate than a clock?" (Poseidon, $14.95)

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