It took me a couple of half-hearted tries to get into Jane Gardam's "Old Filth." Though the title and synopsis of the story appealed to me, the first few paragraphs just didn't grab me at first. Maybe it was my mood, because when I finally returned to it, I could hardly put it down. The lasting result is that I now miss no opportunity to evangelize every reader I meet about Gardam's books.
As Gardam tells her story, “Filth” is an acronym: Failed In London, Try Hong Kong. The principal character from whose point of view she tells the story is Edward Feathers, a “Raj Orphan” as a child, now, in the 2000s, a highly respected retired lawyer and judge.
To others, “Old Filth” may be legendary for his long life and upright career, but up close, he doesn’t appear too interesting. A young, stylish, up-and-coming London barrister, the partner of the son of one of Feathers’s childhood friends, exemplifies how dismissive the young can be of the old, condescending toward him as she makes some blatantly mistaken assumptions that he’s had a quiet, easy, happy life away from the city and any complexities. (Having observed similar attitudes on occasion from lawyers and law students here in the US, I had to smile when I got to that part.)
Throughout the novel, Feathers is looking back at his life after the death of his wife, considering his life of loneliness and searching for meaning in his personal history. “All my life,” he says at the book’s end, “from my early childhood, I have been left, or dumped, or separated by death, from everyone I loved or who cared for me. I want to know why.”
Feathers’s complex story, which Gardam unfolds in slow and masterful stages, would shock everyone except the few who knew him as a small child. At the end, the reader can understand why he’s repressed his own story and kept it a secret throughout his life. I wondered how Feathers’s life would have been different and, perhaps, happier, if he had openly acknowledged his story, or at least allowed some to get close enough to him so that he could tell them.
In both “Old Filth” and “God On The Rocks,” Gardam is very, very good at telling stories in which the characters have far more under their surfaces than they display to others. She’s published a companion novel–NOT a sequel–to “Old Filth,” “The Man in the Wooden Hat,” in which she tells the story of Feathers’s marriage from the point of view of his wife, who is only a minor character in “Old Filth.” It's just as good, and rounds out Feathers's story. Note to Man Booker Prize judges: Gardam really, REALLY needs to win sometime soon.
Gardam was partly inspired to write “Old Filth” by reading Rudyard Kipling’s story, “Baa Baa Black Sheep,” about his miserable experiences as a “Raj Orphan” when his parents sent him back to England as a small child from India to receive a proper English education. How strange it is, in another time and another place, to think that doing so was once considered a matter of course. I’m putting Kipling’s story on my near-term reading list.