Graham Swift’s novel is a walk down memory lane following the death of a friend and, to my surprise, won the Booker in 1996. Ray (Lucky Ray), Vic, Lenny and Vince (the deceased’s sort-of-son) go on a trip from Bermondsey to Margate to fulfill Jack Dodd’s last wishes: have his ashes scattered over the sea. On the way they make a few unplanned stops and the chapters jump from their little trip and its events to point-of-view recollections from each of the four, plus Amy, Jack’s wife. Through the entwining narratives you get a glimpse into the secrets they’ve kept from each other in the course of a 40 year friendship and the disappointments they each lived. Ray and Amy had an affair. Vince isn’t Jack’s flesh and blood, but a boy orphaned in the war that Amy took in while her husband was on the front. Vince left Sally (Lenny’s daughter) pregnant and she had an abortion at the urging of her father. Jack and Amy’s daughter was born mentally disabled and has lived for 50 years in a home. All these – and many more – have added to the dynamic of the group and Jack’s death is the moment when old wounds start bleeding again. The most compelling bits are the parent-child relationships: how they each made (or are in the progress of making) mistakes with their daughters, mistakes that still haunt them and will probably be with them until their deaths.
A friend’s death is a simple plot device to bring the conversation towards mortality and the limited time one has left to make things right. But my guess is that, beyond this little trip, characters such as these will return to their daily grind because they are stuck – they fantasize about rebuilding bridges long burned but they all know it really is too late. Perhaps tellingly, the only one with a calm, clean conscience is Vic, the undertaker: close proximity to the dead might have pushed him to make the best of it all.
There’s also a movie – and I think I might see it one day. The reason I said, in the beginning, that the Booker surprised me is that this book is ultimately quite forgettable – and I remember I said the same thing about The light of day. And the two are actually quite similar – broaching subjects like the father-daughter relationships, regrets or guilt.