Learning to Swim

Carole Mansur

[from Punch, 20 November 1985]

Back to a slower beat and old familiars with this anthology from Graham Swift. Although we can be grateful that not one of the stories is set in Hampstead, the proverbial tame-bourgeois focus of the parochial English author, there is nothing startlingly strange about his chosen environments either -- the characters live out their lives in Greenwich of Finchley, take their holidays in Istanbul (on a package) or by the seaside.

Like "Learning to Swim," every story forces its protagonists through some kind of survival course: the teenagers hiding in a squat, the hotel-keeper whose livelihood is threatened by an incestuous relationship under his roof, the refugee from the Hungarian Revolution adapting to a middle-class British family, the sun enduring his mother's lover, the doctor whose own health is mauled by a predatory hypochondriac. Swift keeps the record as they stumble and fall, a merciless, dispassionate umpire, hand on the stop-watch. The one instance in which he strays off-limits into the fringes of fantasy is, fittingly, a powerful fable about a watch which never stops and is handed on from generation to generation in a family whose members live to a Biblical old age. When death eventually come, it comes violently, while the watch survives, tick tock.

[Added by Barry J. Fishman '89]

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