This book won the 1996 Booker Prize, and I have to admit that I was conscious I was reading a prize winning novel as I worked through it. And it was work - the narrative is dense and you have to pay close attention to which character is speaking, since that changes with each chapter. Like a lot of work, though, it was satisfying.
The book centers on a day in the lives of four men, whose friend Jack Dodds has just died. Jack's last wish was to have his ashes scattered into the water at a seaside resort east of London, and his friends travel from that city together to carry out this task. Each chapter shows you the perspective of one of these four men as they relate to each other, mourn for their friend and look back on important moments in their own lives. The author seems to have tried to give each man his own unique voice, and to a certain extent it does work, but I had a bit of trouble sorting out who was who. The neat thing is that as you read, you build up a picture of Jack, his life and the man that he was. The book is really about Jack as much as any of them, even though he dies before it even starts. But you have to like characterization as a driving force in your fiction if you read this book, because aside from a short fist fight, nothing really happens.
On the whole, I thought this was a fine, memorable book, touching and thought-provoking, which made up for its lack of gripping action scenes and suspenseful plot.
PS - I have thought about this for a while and I wanted to add something. Swift's writing in this book reminds me of Roddy Doyle's. But when I compare this novel with something like "The Van", another tale of male friendship, I realize that it doesn't have quite the emotional impact that "The Van" did. There was something missing here, that left me detached from the story and characters at the same time as I admired the prose.