Monday 25 March 2013

Old Filth by Jane Gardam

What I particularly like about Jane Gardam is her ability to write a serious book raising serious questions,  yet imbue it with a quiet, subversive humour. How she makes this work could be because her writing is so pared down and crisp, or maybe it is the array of quirky characters. Whatever it is, this particular combination  makes her books, for me, among the best there are. And better still, the third book in her Old Filth trilogy is out in a month or two.
    With this in mind I decided to revisit the first. In Old Filth the serious topic is the travesty of what were called Raj Orphans - children born in the far-flung regions of the Empire and sent home to England away from their parents to be brought up by strangers, sometimes not very nice ones.
    This happens to Edward Feathers who is born in Malaya, and with no mother and a father aloof because of the lingering effects of his war service, is sent to live in Wales at the age of five. He and his cousins Babs and Claire, and a boy named Cumberledge are fostered with the cruel Ma Didds. The events that take place are not described until the end of the book, but their effects remain through Edward's long and illustrious career as a barrister and judge and into his retirement.
    In his seventies, Eddie and his sensible wife, Betty, return to England to live in a damp corner of Dorset, having lived in the East for most of their lives. When Betty dies, Eddie begins to dwell more on more on the events of the past. Weaving past narrative with the events that follow his retirement, the novel charts his progress, from Wales to boarding school, his great friendship with a boy called Ingoldby and his family, who adopt him for holidays. Then the disruption of World War Two and the start of his career in law and the attachment of the famous soubriquet, Filth - failed in London, try Hong Kong. 
   It's a wonderful story, and Gardam really nails her character - you get to know Filth so well, not only because of what happens to him, and quite a lot does, but because of the way other characters relate to him. The second book in the trilogy The Man in the Wooden Hat, is Betty's story, which is similarly tragic. The third, Last Friends, will be that of Veneering, Filth's rival, arch enemy and eventual good friend. I can hardly wait.

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