A Journey In Memory Of an Old Friend
By Graham Swift Picador
It sometimes seems there are only two kinds of novels.
There is the disposable sort, the plots and details of which are mercifully forgotten even before we chuck the printed copy in the bin. And then there are those we retain, those whose stories and characters linger with us, bringing an inward smile and a runnel of hope, long after we have reached the final page.
Though perhaps challenging in its subject matter, "Last Orders," Graham Swift's latest novel, falls easily into this latter category. Earlier this autumn, amid the usual controversy and cries of literary favoritism, Swift was awarded the Booker Prize for it, Britain's most prestigious literary prize.
Upon the decease of their lifelong friend, Jack, four men travel from south London to Margate to scatter his ashes over the sea. Their circuitous journey from their urban home through the farmland of Kent provides the vehicle for a patchwork of reminiscences stitched together with short narrative sequences.
Leaving their working-class section of London and driving through the countryside, the characters reflect on how the triumphs and defeats of Jack's life are inseparable from the fabric of their being.
Their stops at Dickens's city, Rochester, at a farm, and at the ancient cathedral of Canterbury, beloved by pilgrims through the ages, furnish the impetus for this cathartic re-evaluation and revelation. They recall the respect, compassion, disagreements, and unhappiness that have colored their relationships, even as they cope with the very real awkwardnesses of Jack's final request.
A further depth of emotion is added by Jack's widow, Amy, who has spent her life balancing her affection for her husband with her devotion to their severely disabled daughter.
Swift's characters are firmly rooted in the British working class with all its humor, vulgarity, and realism. Each of the four men - Ray, Vince, Lenny, and Vic - was bound to Jack by companionship, custom, and, occasionally, envy.
They each had ambitions and dreams beyond the barriers erected by class and parental expectation. They are tradesmen - a butcher who wanted to be a doctor, a fruitseller who dreamed of prize-fighting, an insurance clerk who loved horses and yearned to be a jockey.
Individually, they relate how they fought side by side in North Africa in WWII, worked together in Bermondsey, shared their leisure hours in pubs or by the seaside.
Somewhat disconcerting is the impression that this is how an intellectual writer imagines the working class perceives things - how they think, talk and act - rather than an accurate representation of their speech and lives.
Nor has Swift learned how to delineate character through differentiation of speech, for each of us talks in a pattern as unique as a fingerprint.
Because the author makes no such concessions to individuality, the reader isn't always clear which of the characters is narrating. Eventually, however, the characters - particularly Ray - surmount these limitations and shine like stars in a winter sky: small, but no less brilliant and blessed for all that, though it remains unclear whether this happens because, or in spite of, Swift's best effort.
In the hands of a lesser novelist, this would be the literary equivalent of a daytime soap opera. Yet Swift's vision is so spare, so counter to melodrama or emotional excess, that "Last Orders" reads as a poignant set of variations on John Donne's theme "No man is an island." It is a novel redolent with hope, triumph, and promise, and despite its few drawbacks, it returns the warmth of humanity to the field of literature, which all too often is heartless and barren.
* Melissa Bennetts is a freelance writer living in England.