Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 9, 2020

Last Orders, by Graham Swift, winner of the Booker Prize in 1996

Reviews From the Archive

An occasional series, cross-posting my reviews from The Complete Booker.
To see my progress with completing the Complete Booker Challenge, see here.

Last Orders, by Graham Swift, won the Booker Prize in 1996.

May 3rd, 2003

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 severely intellectually disabled daughter. Amy spends 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 uneducated, 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.

 


Responses

  1. I loved this book. So nice to be reminded of it.

    Like

    • Yes, I liked it too. I’ve got some of his very early novels that I bought for a song at the OpShop, I really should dig them out and read them…

      Like

  2. I loved this novel, too. Thank you so much for posting your review, Lisa.

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    • You’re welcome Marlish, I hope all is well with you:)

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Lisa

    Thanks for reminding me about this fine book. I must read it again. I am a big fan of Graham Swift and this is probably his best book although I am also fond of Waterland and The Light of Day, and I did enjoy this year’s offering Here We Are.
    Last Orders is also an example where a film stands up as a good realisation of a book, as I feel that the mood of the film neatly captures all of those themes about male insecurity, veiled by male foibles of mal-communication, that you so accurately identify in your review. This is probably #3 or #4 for me on my list of favourite Booker winners.
    Keep them coming!
    Chris

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    • Yes, I tend to be critical of book-to-movie, but this one was so well done.
      *smile* There are some more to come!

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  4. Funnily enough I had been thinking about this movie recently and had forgotten the name of it – and I didn’t know it was originally a book! Thank you for enlightening me, yet another writer on my “to read” list. I do remember then carrying the urn of ashes with them into the pub… lovely movie and not easy to source now.

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    • Thank you Sue, you’ve reminded me that I need to add this to my Book-to-Screen category:)

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      • Yes do Lisa – I will have to find a copy of the movie..anything with Michael Caine is always good!
        Our library only has Here We Are – I just read your review of it, sounds worth a look once I finish The Returns by Salom (loving it).

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        • You will be delighted to hear that Salom has a new one out soon, Barry from Transit Lounge will be sending me a copy soon, and I am racing to finish my review pile (ha!) so that I can get to it quickly.,

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          • I will be looking forward to hearing about anything by Philip Salom!

            Who does the proof reading these days? There are so many errors in the text and The Returns is a Miles Franklin winner!

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            • Not quite a winner, but he was nominated for both Waiting in 2017 and The Returns in 2020. Waiting, published by a very small outfit who shall remain nameless, was, as I noted in my review, riddled with proof-reading errors but I can’t say that I remember that being a problem in The Returns.

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  5. I don’t think I read this, but thought the film was very well done, with a fine cast.

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    • They were good, I agree. The Brits are good at this type of film, I reckon.

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  6. A wonderful book. I noticed from my review that I found it confusing initially because the point of view kept switching and I didn’t know which of the characters was the focus. But it grew and grew on me as the subtleties of their relationships and the way they are in denial came to light

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s the kind of thing I love in a book. I want subtlety, I get bored by books that are too obvious.

      Like

  7. I loved this way back when!

    Like

    • That’s what I like about doing this series, it reminds me — and others — of books I read a while ago:)

      Liked by 1 person


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