Last Orders by Graham Swift #Bookerprize

Last ordersLast Orders  is a tale of four men who embark on a day trip to the seaside. Actually there are five people in the car that takes them from London to Margate though one of them is not in a position to contribute much to the conversation, he being recently cremated and present only in the form of a box of his ashes.

Jack Dodds, a butcher by trade, may not be alive but he is very much the focal point of this trip. It was his dying request that his son Vince and his three best mates Ray, Lenny and Vic – scatter his ashes from the jetty at Margate where he spent his honeymoon. As they journey from Bermondsey to Margate with detours to the  Sailors’ Memorial at Chatham and Canterbury Cathedral, each of them reflects on his friendship with Jack and their own lives. Their stories are revealed in short chapters told from one or other of the characters, stories which intertwine and build gradually to a picture of men who are in denial about their lives.

There’s Ray, an insurance clerk whose wife dumped him for another man. He gets sympathy from the others because for many years he hasn’t heard from his only daughter who lives in Australia. Actually the breach is Ray’s fault – he is the one who stopped writing, unable to find a way to tell his daughter about key events in her life.

Vince, the chauffeur for the day, had a troubled relationship with Jack throughout his life. It stemmed from his resentment that he wasn’t really Jack’s son but taken in by him and his wife Amy as a baby when his own family were killed in a bombing raid during World War 2. Vince was in effect a substitute for their real child who was born severely retarded and whom Jack could never accept. As Vince grew up he railed against the presumption that he would become a butcher just like Jack. Instead he turned his hand to car mechanics, much to Jack’s dismay even though the business proved successful.

And then there’s Lenny, a fruit-and-veg stallholder who has good reason to be angry with Vince. Having got Lenny’s daughter pregnant Vince disappeared into the Army instead of doing the decent thing and marrying the girl.  It suits Lenny to blame Vince for the fact his daughter is now shacked up with a guy who is serving a prison sentence. What he doesn’t admit even to himself is how much he played a part in her unhappy life by forcing her to have a backstreet abortion.

margate

Margate: the final destination in Last Orders

All these undercurrents rise to the surface as the quartet make their circuitous pilgrimage to the coast. It’s left to Vic, an undertaker, to act the peacemaker though even he cannot prevent a standoff fight between two of the other men.  All four of these men have experienced disappointments and frustrations but they won’t admit it to themselves or to their companions. They draw a discrete veils over many events like Ray’s affair with Jack’s  wife. Only the reader can see the truth by piecing together what the men say – but even more significantly what they don’t say. For this is a novel where despite the multiplicity of voices it’s the silences that tell the real story.

In some ways Last Orders is quite a simple book about rather ordinary people, the kind you can meet every day. It’s very much a male world – Jack’s wife Amy is the only female character of note – dominated by the pub and the armed forces in which all these men served (the title Last Orders has connotations of military orders as well as Jack’s instructions). It’s a little bleak in some parts but lightened with the occasional moment of black humour when the guys became resentful they were not getting their fair share of time carrying the plastic bag containing Jack’s ashes. By the end they are beginning to look to the future and the possibilities remaining in their own lives: Ray for example thinks it’s time he visited his daughter in Australia while Amy who has visited her daughter in her institutional home every week for 50 years, decides it’s time for a parting of the ways.

It was hard to feel much connection with these characters initially because the narrator kept changing so often with only subtle changes in their speech patterns.  I found I had to keep checking the chapter headings to make sure I knew whose story was being told. But as the book progressed it became clear that this lack of clarity was by design – just as I couldn’t sort out their lives neither could each of these men. Maybe everyone of us has a jumbled life. We’re too close to it to make sense of it ourselves so we just relate the pieces and let others put it together to make a cohesion.

Footnote

Last Orders by Graham Swift is published by Picador. It won the Booker Prize in 1996 though true to form, not all the critics thought it was a good choice. One Australian professor pointed to the similarity of the plot with William Faulkner’s As I Lay DyingSwift responded to the critique by saying his book was an “echo” of Faulkner’s but nothing more.

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on August 8, 2016, in Book Reviews, Man Booker Prize, United Kingdom and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 25 Comments.

  1. This actually sounds rather lovely. Men can sometimes be withdrawn and held in with their emotions that they come across unfeeling and callous at times. It is nice to read books that deal with men’s emotions in a mature and sympathetic way.

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    • thats an interesting take on the novel that I had missed Nish. Of course in the area of London where they all originate it was not the ‘done thing’ to show emotion either so they have that added impediment

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  2. Can I just say that I hate this book? It’s my worst Booker Prize. I have nothing more to say.

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  3. I love “a simple book about rather ordinary people”! I haven’t read this yet, but the movie really pulled me in and made me want to read this and others of his books. I loved the quiet slow story about men and their tricky relationships and uncertain emotions.

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  4. It sounds rather lovely. I tried to read Waterland over ten years ago and wasn’t old enough to find it interesting, but I think Swift is probably marvelous and I’d like to try him again!

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  5. Your post is a great reminder of an excellent book. I’ve only read this one and ‘Waterland’ by Swift but enjoyed both. Maybe I should try some more by him.

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  6. I loved it, and I loved the film too. And yes, Waterland as well…

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  7. I saw the film version of this and liked it. Also read the author’s The Sweet Shop Owner which I thought was excellent.

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  8. I recall reading this when it came out in paperback, and while I liked it I didn’t love it. You’ve captured it very well though, all the characters ring a bell with me.

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  9. I liked this very much, if you haven’t read it Waterland is excellent too.

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  10. I’ve read Waterland and thought it was brilliant – much better than Last Orders but I thought The Untouchable by John Banville (which didn’t win the Booker) was much better than The Sea (which did) so what do I know!

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    • I have the audio version of The Untouchable on my iPod at the moment though it doesn’t work well as a companion to a commute. I think the only way to appreciate this is to settle down with no distractions…..
      I’ve given up predicting what will win because basically I am totally useless at it. so you and I should probably form a club Vicky

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    • Ooh, yes, Vicky Blake, Waterland is excellent, and the film version has Jeremy Irons.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Sounds good, if perhaps not for me. I’m not sure if the characters would draw me in enough, tbh!

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    • initially i was frustrated by the way the characters backgrounds and personalities came together in such a fragmented way but after a while I could see how each one’s memories told us something about the other men.

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  12. I read this only six years ago yet I remember very little- perhaps meaning that it didn’t have much of an impact even though I think I enjoyed it enough at the time. I didn’t realize that it had won the Booker Prize. Thank you for reminding me of it!

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