Although I have no great hopes of Old Filth making even the Booker long-list, it is by far the best work of fiction I've read this year - and I've read the McEwen, the Barnes, the Ishiguro, the Mantel etc. etc that keep getting hyped. They all have their merits, but this is the only one that is a work of art. It is about a generation that rarely gets noticed in fiction, the ones who grew up when Britian still had an Empire, then lost it. Emotionally crippled, brave, uncomplaining and ofdten as successful professionally as they were a mess emotionally, Old Filth is their emblem.
Born in Malaya, he gets handed over to a native wet-nurse, and has five years of happiness before being exiled to a monstrous home in Britain. Gardam quotes the inscription on the wall of the Inner Temple "Lawyers, I suppose, were children once", as with exquisite compassion and irony she shows how Eddie Fevvers had his ripped away from him, and how, like the boy in Kipling's story Baa Baa Black Sheep, tried to defend himself and others against violence and cruelty.
He is healed, somewhat, by a sympathetic best friend who gets killed, and by a teacher who recognises his brilliance and helps him get into Cambridge. A picaresque journey out to the supposed safety of the Far East eventually lead to a distinguished career in Hong Kong, where his wife is unfaithful with his great rival (now neighbour). Yet what is remarkable about the novel isn't the linear progression of a man's life over 90 years, it's the way it shows time in free-fall after bereavement and before death. There is a caustic, comic quality very like Beckett's End Game in its portrayal of the very old. Despite all the tragedies of Filth's life, it manages to keep a kind of buoyancy to it that make is life-affirming as well as very moving. I have read Gardam's other works, but this is, whatever other reviewers say, much better and deeper not least because it places no faith in romantic love as a panacea for all ills.