I saw a review in the New York Times a few months ago of a book by Jane Gardam and it sounded interesting. I had never heard of Gardam so, while I put the book on my list, I didn’t put it at the top of the list. I also wrote down that the book was a sequel to an earlier work of hers, a novel called Old Filth. She probably would have stayed on my list, patiently awaiting the day she moved to the top, except that I kept running across book bloggers who were writing about her, and what they wrote was usually glowing. So I decided I should move her higher up the list.
I read this novel over one weekend and when I got to the end I turned right around and I read it again. I haven’t done that in a long time. Then I went out and got the sequel.
Old Filth is the nickname of the main character, Sir Edward Feathers, a very old English lawyer and former judge. Filth is an acronym, it stands for “Failed in London, Try Hong Kong”. Filth began his law career in London and, while it isn’t clear that he had time to really fail before he got involved in the Far Eastern Bar, he certainly wasn’t thriving. Filth (yes Gardam calls him that throughout the sections of the novel that deal with him as an old man; she calls him Eddie when he’s younger) made piles of money in the Far East and eventually settled more or less permanently in Hong Kong where he had a rivalry with a fellow lawyer named Terry Veneering. But instead of retiring in Hong Kong, he and his wife, Betty, came back to England and retired in a traditional house in Dorset.
In the first chapter, Betty has been dead for a couple of years and Filth discovers that Veneering has moved in next door.
Now, at that point, I assumed that all of the “present day” scenes would explore Filth and Veneering coming to terms with each other as parts of their past were revealed to the reader. I was wrong.
Yes, the novel explores Filth’s past. And his present. But it barely explores his relationship with Veneering even though Gardam makes Veneering a very attractive character about whom I for one would have liked to have heard more. In fact, throughout the novel Gardam gives us bits and pieces of information about Veneering without making him a real character in the novel. In fact, almost no one is a real character in the novel except Filth. He is the only character that she explores in-depth and yet she surrounds him with such fascinating people that I thought she could have created separate novels about each of them.
The encounter with Veneering at the start of the novel is a bookend. The next chapter shows us Eddie as a baby. That is the other bookend. The novel, however, moves on in time past the meeting with Veneering and is about Eddie remembering and coming to terms with what happened in the years in between the bookends of chapters one and two. I didn’t expect that in a relatively short novel. I like when novels don’t go in the direction that I expect.
Another thing I didn’t expect was to be reminded of Paul Scott’s novel Staying On. But I was very much reminded of it, although this novel is different in so many ways.
Of course Scott’s couple in Staying On is older than Eddie Feathers. They are elderly in the 1960’s and were middle aged when Britain pulled out of India after World War II. Eddie and Betty Feathers came of age during World War II and are old in the late 1990’s and through the aughts. They chose not to stay on when Hong Kong was handed over to China at the end of Britain’s lease in 1997.
So maybe it wasn’t Staying On that this novel brought to mind, but Scott’s Raj Quartet. The characters in Old Filth are about the same age as the principal characters in The Raj Quartet who were also members of the Raj sent home for most of their childhood. .
But what really reminded me of a Paul Scott novel was Gardam’s deceptive structure. The tale is not told in linear form, the story jumps around all over Filth’s life. Even at the beginning of the novel there is an ambiguity about time. It seems that the present depicted in the first chapter must be the central time period of the novel from which Filth is remembering the past, but it turns out to not be the point where Filth is remembering the past. The reader must be patient; and the reader must remember things that are disclosed earlier to put them together with things that happen later. That’s one reason I wanted to read it again immediately, to get all the details fixed in my mind.
But despite all of the comparisons I’m making to Scott, Gardam’s novel is not derivative. It stands on its own as a beautifully written novel with a clearly developed main character.
In truth, I think I loved this novel because I loved the way Gardam strings her sentences together. After a frantic chapter or two in which Filth, who hasn’t driven in years, decides he must take a car trip to see some cousins he hasn’t seen since childhood, Gardam brings him to a peaceful place at his cousin Claire’s:
It was afternoon and Filth was drinking tea again and Vanessa sat near his hammock on the wide, shaven lawn in front of the house, adding more hot water to the teapot from a silver thermos jug. There were small sandwiches. It was a warm late November and Claire’s dahlias glowed and dripped with sunlight. The exposed garden, on a corner – High Light was an end-of-terrace site on a rise, like a Roman villa built over a hill fort – looked down and across at a shiny shallow lake where boats were moving about and children shouted. Beyond, straggled the town and beyond that, droned the invisible motorway like bees in the warm afternoon.
Gardam’s beautiful sentences set scenes and then she lets dialog take over. Her characters aren’t easy; Filth isn’t easy. He’s a cranky old man who has always been an actor, both in trial and in real life. His whole life is a study in making people think he is easy going when he isn’t. Members of the Bar are convinced that nothing exciting has ever happened to him; we know differently. And he has been living with a secret most of his life; a secret shared only with his cousins whom he hasn’t seen in years.
I truly loved this novel and can’t wait to finish the sequel.