Last Orders: Graham Swift

Reason for choosing this book: I read another of Graham Swift’s books, Waterland, as part of my degree. The course it was set for was entitled ‘History Time and Memory’ and I enjoyed it immensely (the book and the course).

How did it come into my life? In an Oxfam bookshop. It has quite a good front cover which, sadly, often contributes my decision-making process.

I find it hard to talk about this book without reference to Waterland. So much of what I know and like of Graham Swift – his style, his ambivalence, his bleak outlook and historical awareness – underlies Last Orders where it is self-evident and rampant in Waterland.

My first thought, on getting a few pages into the book, was that he seems to be suffering from over-confidence. The use of the split narrative; the story being told from multiple perspectives is a tricky tool at the best of times, and when it is being used by characters who are all as dreary as each other, it becomes all the more so. That isn’t to say I didn’t appreciate the effort. I feel perhaps if I had been assigned this as a course text I would have got more out of it – perhaps read it in three long bursts rather than a few pages at a time on trains and before bed. As it is, however, I don’t have that kind of time to dedicate to reading anymore, and so minor character and plot developments that might have helped me keep tabs on who was speaking when, were all but lost on me, and I found myself just about being able to recognise who was married to/having an affair with who, when any of the events took place, and whose wife was whose (it has to be said that there is a distinct lack of female character development in this novel, but that is not something I wish to discuss at length; it doesn’t impact on the story).

Having said all this, I did end up being able to follow it (after a frustrating week of grappling with it two pages at a time, I had a few hour-long train journeys in which to really get to grips with it) and found it a haunting novel, in much the same way as – if more prosaically than – Waterland.

The prosaic nature of the novel is its greatest strength and where all it’s poignancy is derived from. Whereas Waterland is almost mythic, Last Orders is firmly and irrevocably rooted in the ordinary. ‘Ordinary’ is a word I use with caution, as it is clearly loaded with uncertainty and relativity; in this case it means the downtrodden, bleak, meaningless and unsung lives lived everywhere.

Overall, I enjoyed this book for a few key reasons:

  1. Part of the action, and a lot of the book’s dialogue is spent in Margate. I have been living and working on the Kent coast for a year, and have become fond of it’s crumbling and depressed façade, which is something Swift doesn’t shy away from. The journey from London to the coast is one I make weekly, and opening the book to find the same journey being made was a happy co-incidence.
  2. Swift is unarguably a master of the written word. It is a pleasure to read his work. The most unlikely characters become the mouthpieces or the vehicles for some profound comments on the human condition and man’s place in modernity.
  3. As I have said before, I can’t think of this book without recourse to Waterland, and it gave me an impetus to revisit my experience of that brilliant novel. 

Summed up: a haunting book about death and life and the ordinariness of both, with a bit of an examination of dysfunctional human relationships thrown in for good measure. In typical Swift-ian style, the question of whether anything we do leaves a mark is always lurking in the background. Don’t attempt this if you’ve got a short attention span or can’t dedicate some time. This is great modern fiction: persevere and you will be rewarded.

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