Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

I can no longer remember who recommended Graham Swift’s Last Orders. It may have been Stephen…is that right? But in any case, whoever suggested this wonderful book deserves a huge thank you. What a gem. What a treat to read.


I love complicated books with multiple points-of-view and an intricate timeline. Books which are hard to put down because of a real risk of losing the thread. The main, forward action of Last Orders takes place in a single day but the story jumps around from person to person, covering a lifetime of short scenes and powerful experiences. A hodge-podge collection of the moments which gave meaning to each character’s life and which led them all to this particular day.


The day in question is not an easy one. Jack Dodds has recently passed away and a group of his friends – Ray, Lenny and Vic – along with his son Vince are on a road trip from London to scatter his ashes on the sea. Swift takes a single car journey and transforms it into the ride of a lifetime. Heartbreak, friendship, treachery, sorrow, luck and joy and everything else you can imagine a person’s life can contain all hitchhike along with the four men as they carry out Jack’s last request.


Behind Jack’s story is another, more subtle one. The loud, bravado-filled presence of the four men in the car is made conspicuous by the absence of the women who should be with them – Ray’s wife and daughter, Lenny’s daughter, Jack’s wife and daughter, Vince’s daughter. These are men who have suffered heavy losses. Their sorrow at losing Jack is really the tip of the iceberg, an accumulation of losing much more across a lifetime.


Ray has a more central role in the novel and his story is one of the more compelling narratives. His life was intertwined with Jack’s to an incredible degree, for both better and worse. Witnessing the arc of his grief as the four men journey toward the seashore is a wonderfully complicated and riveting experience. I think Swift really gets at the heart of what makes grieving such a horrible process – if it were a simple feeling we would know how to deal with it. But grief surges forth out of the messiness of our day to day and the convoluted details of our relationships. It will never be simple or easy.


There is so much going on in this novel – differences between the four men, fathers and daughters, love lost and love found, abandonment, and even a look at social class. Not to mention Swift’s structural and narrative choices. I think Last Orders is a great candidate for a Reading Writer post, because from a writing technique perspective there is a lot to look at and examine. I’ll have to save that for another day.


This was my first experience reading Graham Swift and it goes without saying that I really enjoyed it. Has anyone else read anything else by him – any suggestions? I just went and bookmooched his second novel Shuttlecock and his third novel Waterland so will be looking forward to those.



13 Responses to “Graham Swift – Last Orders”

  1. Cliff Burns

    I like Swift as well–a nice unadorned style, no pretension. Have another novel of his, THE SWEET SHIP OWNER, that I recall with fondness. Really, I don’t think you can go wrong with any of the guy’s literary offerings. And can I plug another fine Brit author that often drops off people’s radar: Martin Booth. His novel DREAMING OF SAMARKAND is nothing short of amazing…

  2. Anna van Gelderen

    I read this book in 1997 and in my reading notes I called it a gem (just checked). It’s actually one of my all time favourites, but I have noticed that a lot of people find the book boring or unremarkable. They don’t know how to read!

  3. readsallnight

    Ooooo I remember reading this years back, when I was working in bookshop (Best Job Ever!) – a beautiful, beautiful read…and one that’s overdue a re-read, so thanks for the reminder 🙂

  4. Colleen

    Last Orders is just a lovely book; I’m glad you enjoyed it. Waterland is one of my favourite books of all time, so I obviously I must recommend it!

    Otherwise, I find Swift a bit hit or miss. I recently read The Light of Day and absolutely hated it.

  5. Stephen

    It might have been me … as I always recommend this book … I’m really glad you liked it!

  6. verbivore

    Cliff – I look forward to reading Swift’s other novels and thanks for the other suggestion, will definitely have a look and see what I think.

    Anna – thank you for leaving a comment. It was such a delight to discover this book, and now this author. I can’t wait to read more.

    Readsallnight – I think Last Orders is a great candidate for rereading (one of my favorite things to do) so I look forward to your thoughts as you go through it a second time!

    Colleen – Glad to hear you liked Waterland, since that one is coming my way soon. (Isn’t bookmooch the best?)

    Stephen – I do think it was you and what a wonderful recommendation. One of the best books of the year for me, so thank you! I’m interested in Swift because he seems to get so much less attention than McEwan, for example, and yet I thought his work was equally complex if not more so.

  7. Litlove

    I am ashamed to say I’ve never read Graham Swift although Waterland is taught in schools these days. I can see I must get to him at some point in the not too distant future! Lovely review, verbivore.

  8. Pete

    I have also heard good things about Waterland but have never read it. Great review of Last Orders. I’ll have to add it to the list.

  9. Dorothy W.

    I’ve never read Graham Swift, but you are making me want to! I love novels with multiple viewpoints and complicated structures as well.

  10. Logophile

    This is truly a gem of a book. I really enjoyed it when I read it in the late 90s and fully intended to read other books by him…you’ve now rekindled that ambition!

  11. verbivore

    Litlove – I suspect you would like him, lots to analyze in his book. All these people saying good things about Waterland, I can’t wait until it shows up from bookmooch.

    Pete – I’d love to know what you think if you do get a chance to read it.

    Dorothy – It was nearly hard to follow in the beginning (which I suppose we could argue might be a criticism) but I liked how weird the narrative structure was and it made me not want to put the book down.

    Logophile – I’ve got two more on the way, so am really looking forward to reading more!

  12. Laura Caldwell

    I tried hard to read this book but found in boring. I liked neither the plot(?) nor the characters. I don’t think Swift can be compared to Ian McEwan whom I love.

  13. verbivore

    Laura – Interesting comment, I’d love for you to expand. What about the book made it boring for you do you think? I also like McEwan but I would put Swift on the same level – they have a different relationship with their characters, perhaps. Until I read a bit more Swift I can’t comment too much on a comparison of their writing style…

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