Dan Sandman

39: Last Orders by Graham Swift

In Adventure, Books, Fiction on 27/09/2013 at 12:00 pm

Last Orders by Graham SwiftFour men are going on a road trip to scatter a dead man’s ashes into the sea. As the journey progresses, each man shares a back-story connecting them to the deceased. These stories intertwine, creating inevitable conflict between the characters. The road trip ends up being a cathartic experience that brings everyone closer together to think about the complex fragility of human life.

Graham Swift focusses attention on the Second World War, various manifestations of the British working class dream, and his characters’ attitudes towards sexual relationships. The writer does so by creating emotional stories about ordinary men and woman struggling to survive in the world. Swift’s characters are funny and warm yet prone to hiding their true feelings. This makes them ideal material for first person explorations of character: something which Swift is an expert at conducting.

The shifting narrative form of Last Orders can leave the reader with a sense of being lost. A character will be telling a story and then suddenly end half way through. It can be difficult to keep track of all the stories which some readers may find frustrating. However, some readers may appreciate the story being completed by a series orchestrated flashbacks. The effect of such non-linear storytelling is to create tension, something that can be quite satisfyingly resolved as the novel reaches its climax.

In fact, flashback is a device we’re used to seeing in film which could be why the book translated so well to the screen when it was made into the film Last Orders (2001). The film had an excellent cast of British actors and it entertained viewers with its use of a particularly London kind of vernacular. Unfortunately, I had seen the film before I read the book which slightly spoilt the reading experience for me. Seeing a film first will often lead to me having certain pictures, perhaps not those suggested by the words on the page, already placed inside my head. For example, nowhere in the book does it say ‘and in walked Amy who looked exactly like Helen Mirren playing Amy in a film version of this book.’

So to conclude, I would say as advice to a friend, always read the book first and then reward yourself with the film afterwards. And if you’ve already seen the film then choose another book because there’s loads of other good books to choose from. Books take a greater investment of time than films and therefore need to be nurtured in a way that shows love for their tunable pages. Each little sentence becomes a paragraph, becomes a chapter, becomes a story. It’s our imagination that is given the roles of producer and director; our own interior connection with language giving us the ability to mould and shape the story into something tangible inside of our very existence.

The wonder of the word.

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