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.