Last Orders is about a group of men tasked with taking their friend’s ashes to the seaside. Not a truly novel concept, but well executed through some quality storytelling and narrative focus. This novel has several different narrators, spans multiple timelines, and deals with the inner workings of the type of characters who could too easily play to type or be too guarded or closed off to see their emotional core.
The novel starts in a pub. Jack, the master butcher, has died. He has asked his wife Amy to take him to the seaside to cast in his ashes into the ocean, but she’s having none of it. She even tells his best friend Ray that not only does he know Jack better, having grown up with him and fought in WW2 with him that he should do it, but also that technically Jack didn’t say Amy had to do it, so Ray should. Turns out Jack was a complicated man.
The narrative voices are distinct and clear ranging from the three closest friends, to Jack’s car-obsessed adopted son, to Amy, as well as Ray taking on two narrative roles as “Ray” but also as “the scribe of the trip to the sea.”
This book won the Booker Prize in 1996 and has a 3.66 on Goodreads. I think in part because almost every Booker Prize winner gets savaged on Goodreads, but also because the narrative focus is so tight and so clearly tied working class ideals, there’s a fear that this novel is either pandering or unimportant. It’s also a deeply earnest novel. The narrators truly care about each and want the best for each other, but aren’t always the most eloquent in their language and expression. There’s also a bit of Lad-culture thrown in as well. And maybe this wasn’t the best novel of the year: Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace and Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance lost that year.
But, regardless, it’s competent, possibly overly sentimental novel.