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The Titans were gone. They had clashed their last. Sir Edward Feathers...and Sir Terence Veneering were dead."
on 11 April 2013
The last novel of an unforgettable trilogy, LAST FRIENDS follows, first, OLD FILTH, the story of Sir Edward Feathers, who Failed in London, Tried Hongkong; hence his nickname. A Raj orphan, Filth grew up in Malaya, went to school in England, became a judge, and then worked for the Empire as a member of the foreign service. The second novel, THE MAN IN THE WOODEN HAT, is the story of Filth's marriage to Betty, told from her point of view. Betty, who never really loved Filth, is reputed to have had an affair with Sir Terence Veneering, Filth's life-long rival in every aspect of life. Both of these novels are filled with wit, irony, and insights into people and relationships, especially those who serve the Empire overseas, and author Jane Gardam's ability to create scenes and unforgettable, often wry dialogue is almost unparalleled.
LAST FRIENDS, the third novel, is ostensibly the story of Sir Terence Veneering, a man of mysterious origins, Filth's rival and possibly Betty's lover. The novel opens as the villagers of St. Ague in Dorset, to which all three retired years ago, are preparing to travel to London for Old Filth's funeral, Betty and Veneering having passed on some time ago. The irrepressible Old Dulcie Williams, the village elder and widow of "Pastry Willy" Williams, a judge who was also in the foreign service, becomes the "voice" of the novel. Clearly dotty, and never shy, Dulcie provides the backstories of these characters, though she "sees" events which may or may not be real, has conversations with people who are long dead, and ignores anything (like the increasingly urgent communications from the bank) that might possibly complicate her life. She is joined in St. Ague by Fred Fiscal-Smith, who has come from Scotland on his way to the funeral, planning to spend some time visiting Dulcie. A retired solicitor and long-time friend of the three main characters, Fiscal-Smith is described by Dulcie as the "meanest," most impecunious person she has ever known.
Through Dulcie and Fiscal-Smith, the reader learns about Veneering's Russian acrobat father and sixteen-year-old British mother, his early childhood in rural Herringfleet, his experiences during the Blitz, his education, his connections with Fiscal-Smith, and his long, often parallel career with that of Filth. Allowing Dulcie, an unreliable narrator at best, to provide most of the information about the characters, gives Gardam the opportunity to write some of her funniest scenes ever, filling them with hilarious patter worthy of the best dramatic comedy. A classic scene in which Dulcie and Fiscal-Smith get locked in the church in St. Ague is laugh-out-loud funny, not a description one normally associates with Gardam, who is usually so subtle and sly with her wit and irony.
At her (surprisingly) boisterous best here, Gardam still manages to create scenes of sensitivity and understanding, especially toward Fiscal-Smith, a sad and lonely old man. While some might argue that this novel is a stand-alone (and it is, in terms of its focus and sense of direction), it is the culmination of three novels and will be far more memorable to those who have read the novels which have come before it and fully understand the contexts. A lively and memorable trilogy which lovers of literary fiction will celebrate for its ironies and insights, this trilogy begs to be made into a film or TV series.