I want you to do me a favour

Last Orders

(This review appeared in the ReadReverb newsletter, Dec 9, 2005, and on the ReadReverb website)

Family butcher, hard drinker, self-styled patriarch of his little local clique: it's not for Bermondsey's Jack Dodds to go gentle into that good night. But even he wouldn't have expected his drinking mates to turn the long journey with his ashes to Margate into a tour of the furthest reaches of south-east England. There's the gambler, the fighter, the undertaker and the car dealer (who's Jack's son and yet not Jack's son); but where's Amy, Jack's long-suffering? Who's she going to visit instead, and why would Jack never acknowledge their existence? What's the big mystery of the camper van, and why would a man on his death-bed need a thousand pounds in cash? Did he really take it all with him?

Once again Swift has written a book which is as much about the English countryside as about its main players. Jack's final journey takes us through Kent (the garden of England, as we're often reminded), and almost everyone gets a chance to tell a section or two from their point of view. Through this multiplicity of voices little histories are made to hang off the big geography like beads off a rosary: a war memorial in Chatham rubs shoulders with hop fields on the south coast; the Black Prince makes a guest appearance; and horses gallop from Chepstow to Towcester, carrying the fortunes of everyone, not just Lucky Raysy. Mud, soil, sand and spray are all churned up and flung at the reader.

The plot is almost entirely played out by setting conflicting narratives against each other. Half a dozen people can tell the reader half a dozen different lies, and by assembling this patchwork one can work out what's really happened. Sometimes the book-length warps of Last Orders are in danger of being smothered by this blanket of voices, but Swift is endlessly picking up the weft and pulling it in a new direction, and it turns out that nothing is ever truly lost: not the thread, nor the plot, nor the point, nor the characters' own personal freedoms. Not even Jack, as at the hands of his friends he slowly becomes part of first this field and then that patch of sea... Albion to Albion... dust to dust.