Last Orders (1996)

by Graham Swift

Jack Dodds's last orders were to have his ashes strewn into the sea off Margate Pier. Three of his elderly buddies and his adopted son carry out the commission, taking a day trip during which each of them thinks about Jack and sizes up his own life.

Much of Last Orders takes place in the heads of the four pilgrims and of Jack's widow, who insead of accompanying them is visiting her severely retarded daughter. Reading the stream of consciousness of the multiple characters, we learn about grievances, guilty secrets, sexual betrayals, parental failures, lost children, resentments, and disappointments.

The shifting narrators can make the story difficult to get one's bearings in, and the working-class London vernacular might compound the difficulty for Americans. Women might find it hard to relate to these men whose emotions go largely unexpressed. But Last Orders is worth sticking with. In the roundabout accumulation of details, Graham Swift brings
into full, sympathetic view several lives that didn't turn out especially well. He ends this Booker Prize–winning novel on a life-affirming note, as his characters fulfill their mission while finding forgiveness for one another and self.


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