Swift's three early books are accomplished preparations for the giant leap he made in his fourth one. In The Sweet Shop Owner (1980) he's already experimenting with time shifts between the present predicament of the shopkeeper hero, who is estranged from his daughter, and the marital bargain, 30 years earlier, that set up their conflict. In Shuttlecock (1981), generational conflict is posed in thriller terms: a clerk in the "dead crimes" department of the London police gradually learns that his father, a World War II espionage hero now speechless in a mental hospital, was not what he seemed.
The stories in Learning to Swim (1982) vary in quality. "The Watch," which the grat German storyteller Heinrich von Kleist might have liked, is oddest and best -- a fantasy about a perpetually ticking timepiece, handed down in a family of clockmakers, that grants not-quite-infallible protection against death. The title story contains a shrewd psychological insight that Swift later developed more fully: a husband berates his wife in order to feel guilty, and so to feel the remorse that would release his own affection for her." The hero of Shuttlecock is tortured by a bureaucratic superior who conceals records from him with benign cruelty and then remarks: "It's a funny thing, isn't it, how you start off wanting to protect someone and then, for that very reason, you end up torturing them?"
These three early Graham Swift books are worth reading as a very talented writer's first moves towards mastery. But read Waterland first: it's truly extraordinary. Then I think you will want to try its predecessors.
[added by Barry J. Fishman '89]