Wednesday, January 7, 2009

1996 - Last Orders by Graham Swift

Last Orders is a lovely book. It won the Booker Prize in 1996, and was made into a terrific film with Michael Caine as Jack.

It's a deceptively simple story. Four blokes take a day trip to Margate Pier to spread the ashes of their mate, Jack, to the sea. Multiple narrators carry the story through flashbacks to the past and commentary on present events, gradually revealing a complex network of relationships, misunderstandings and betrayals, a fragile web held together by grudging affection and respect.

There's Ray, an insurance clerk and punter: Lucky Ray Johnson who's had an affair with Jack's wife; there's Vic, an undertaker whose business is across the road from Jack's butcher shop and there's Lenny, a fruit-and-veg stallholder whose daughter was 'knocked up' by Vince. Vince is Jack and Amy's foster child, brought up as their own when his family was killed by a doodle-bug in the war. He's a substitute for the child-that-never-was, June, Amy and Jack's grossly retarded daughter. Amy wastes fifty years of her life visiting this child who is incapable of responding to her and she can't forgive Jack because he would rather June were dead.

In an interview, Swift says that his characters are undeducated, inarticulate Londoners who have feelings they can't express. I think it's true they're pretty hopeless at expressing things, and there's a gulf between thought and words, but also (as we thought when The Spouse and I saw the film) it was as much a problem of males being unable to express their feelings as much as a lack of education and language. Amy is best at saying what she thinks and feels...

The narrators are not meant to be trusted. Ray, for example, isn't always honest with himself, and neither is Amy. She uses visiting June in the home as an excuse for her affair with Ray to stop, when the real reason is partly that Vince is coming back from military service in Aden and partly that she's realised that she really does love Jack. Swift not only creates doubt about his characters in this way but also through showing that each of them sees the world through their own perspective and they don't always have all the facts. Vic, for example, sees Ray and Amy together - he never says anything about this to anyone and jumps to the conclusion that the affair has been going on for years.

The damage done by stubbornness is a strong theme in this novel. Amy steadfastly refuses to accept Jack's feelings about June; he stubbornly clings onto the hope that Vince will be the son he never had so that the business can become Dodds & Son. Lenny ruins his daughter's life by insisting that she has an abortion and then when things go awry he stubbornly washes his hands of her. For years and years Ray fails to communicate with his daughter in Australia because he doesn't know how to tell her about crucial events that affect her life. These 'invisible people' in the novel play an important role in the characterisation of the others, and the plot.

What binds the men together is that they are 'drinking partners'. Swift portrays tolerance in male friendship as a kind of moral blindness, as when they conspire 'not to notice' that Ray has been sleeping with his mate's wife. Some people see these characters as male stereotypes - Ray blathering on about mateship in the army and Vince being a petrol-head - but I don't think so. Initial impressions are subverted as different layers and perspectives emerge. Vince, for example, isn't a petrol-head - he's used the army to learn a trade to get into business and achieve social mobility. He's more interested in exploiting the role of the car as a status symbol than he is in performance machines; he might just as easily be selling cashmere or diamonds.

Is Amy a stereotype because we only see her through the men's eyes? It's only her bloody-minded devotion to poor June that casts her so stolidly in the role of 'mother'. She doesn't do much mothering of Vince, not even when he was little. She makes unexpected decisions as the novel reaches its conclusion, and the question of her relationship with Ray remains unresolved at the end. Stereotypes don't lend themselves to ambiguity in this way, and I think Swift's characterisation results in memorable personalities - quite an achievement considering how the reader has to piece things together. Just as the characters do.

I finished reading and journalled this book on 3.5.2003.
Lisa Hill, ANZ LitLovers


  1. I admire you for taking on the challenge of reading all the Booker winners and shortlisters. And can I just say you write the best reviews? I'm adding this book to my HUGE TRB pile straight away.

  2. Thank you, Amanda, that's very kind of you:)
    What I'm working on at the moment, is posting reviews of the ones I've already read and journalled over the years since 1997 when I began my reading journal - I've got six of those to go.
    After that, things will slow down! I have 10 of the winners on my TBR, 5 I still don't have, and then there's the 7 that I read pre 1997 and don't have any notes for.
    As for the shortlisters, well, we'll see!