Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

"Learning to Swim and Other Stories" by Graham Swift (Picador, 1994)

This was first published in 1982 by London Magazine, who had already published some of the stories. Separated parents and dead parents are common themes, along with one parent having an affair that the other knows about. In "Seraglio" a childless couple return early from an Istanbul holiday because of an incident. The first-person male is calculatingly wordy. "The Tunnel" features a young couple trying to evade the girl's rich parents, holed up in a condemned London tower block. It has another thoughtful narrator. The plot too is carefully structured. The main character, confined to his flat, paints Gauguins on the walls, looks down at the school opposite which is due for demolition. He sees ex-schoolboys break in. They return each day to build an escape tunnel, propping it up with broken desks. God-like from his high vantage point he can see the schoolyard and the outside world that their tunnel's aiming for. On the day that he saw a hatch of grass raised outside the school by the diggers, the girl receives a letter about an inheritance.

"Hoffmeier's Antelope" ended tamely.

"The Watch" is a "curse of immortality" story in which an ageless man witnesses a birth with the cold-blooded objectivity common to this book's narrators

those expanding eyes or mine saw a glistening, wet, purple-mottled object, like some wrinkled marble pebble, appear where the split began. This pebble grew - and grew - growing impossibly large for the narrow opening in which it seemed intent on jamming itself. For a whole minute, indeed, it stuck there, as if this were its final resting place, while the mother screamed. And then suddenly it ceased to be a pebble. It was a lump of clenched, unformed flesh, suffused with blood, aware that its position was critical. The mother gasped; it became a head, a gnarled, battered Punch-and-Judy head. The mother gasped again, this time with an audible relief and exultation; and it was no longer a head, but a whole creature, with arms and legs and little groping hands; and it was no longer caught in that awesome constriction but suddenly spilling out with slippery ease, like something poured from a pickle jar (p.109)

In "Chemistry" a widower lives with his single-parent daughter. Conveniently for the plot, Grandpa does chemistry experiments in the shed. The grandson surprises him

"What are you making, Grandpa?"
"Not making - changing. Chemistry is the science of change. You don't make things in chemistry - you change them. Anything can change."
(p.126)

Other reviews

  • Barry J. Fishman ( The collection was very well received in England, where Swift, though young, is already established as one of England's leading writers. In America, however, Learning to Swim received a much less favorable reception than did Waterland (published here in 1985), and in the words of Contemporary Authors (V.122) "more than one critic remarked that some of the tales seemed too studied and even uncompelling.")
  • Alberto PiƱera
  • Michael Gorra (New York Times)

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