A Journey in Memory of an Old Friend

Article excerpt

Last Orders

By Graham Swift Picador

296 pp.,$15.99 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. …