Graham Swift’s Last Orders is a British update of Faulkner’s classic As I Lay Dying. I realize that this is not an observation that will send scores of Lawrentians out to buy the book, but stick with me here. While it’s difficult to follow at first, the journey taken in Last Orders is well worth the effort. I wouldn’t rank Last Orders as particularly better or worse than As I Lay Dying. The books share the same basic plot line and narration style, but the Booker Prize-winning Last Orders is strong enough to stand on its own.
Swift uses over a dozen narrators to tell the story of four friends out to fulfill the “last orders” of Jack Dodds, a butcher who has just died of cancer. The four friends, Ray, Vic, Lenny, and Vince, take a drive together in order to grant Jack’s last wish: to have his ashes scattered off Margate Pier. The four main characters each narrate portions of the journey, adding little reminiscences of their past as they go along.
A parallel story line is that of Amy, Jack’s widow. Amy chose not to join her friends in scattering the ashes, but instead chose to make her weekly journey to a mental facility in order to see her mentally challenged daughter June. Amy narrates her own journey, contemplating her rocky relationship with her husband and the choices she made along the way.
I will avoid going much further into the plot, so as not to disturb Swift’s careful arrangement of the book. The book is more rewarding when the information about the characters and their lives is uncovered by Swift’s careful, gradual revelations. Of course, comprehending all this requires a great deal of effort on the part of the reader. This is a book for people who don’t mind taking notes as they read.
The book utilizes about a dozen narrators: primarily the four friends and Amy, but a bartender, several onlookers, and even the late Jack himself add to the story. The eclectic mix adds a lot to the style of the book, but it comes with a price in terms of coherence. Narrators are introduced before the reader knows who they are, and in some scenes the narrator is not identified and can only be determined by process of elimination. Actually, some of the narrators are hard to tell apart. The strongest voices in the book are those of the melancholic yet good-humored Ray and the wistful, grieving Amy. The book really seems to pick up when one of them takes control of the story.
Looking over this review, it seems that I may have given the impression that the book is a downer. Surprisingly, this is not the case. While the book is sad in many places, it is also quite funny (although the humorous lines lose a lot when taken out of context). All in all, Last Orders is a highly rewarding read, but for those readers who are wondering if there is a movie version, the answer is yes. A film adaptation starring Michael Caine, Bob Hoskins, and Helen Mirren was released earlier this year and is now available on video and DVD. It is superb. But that’s still no reason not to read the book.