Customer Review

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A beguiling collage, full of interest and a pleasure to read, 14 April 2010
This review is from: The Man in the Wooden Hat (Hardcover)
I'd always intended to read Jane Gardam's much-lauded novel Old Filth but somehow never got around to it, and then the The Man in the Wooden Hat was published so I thought I'd start with that. Old Filth told the story of Sir Edward Feathers ("Old Filth" - Failed in London, Try Hong Kong), a successful lawyer and later a judge who spent much of his career as a property and construction lawyer in the Far East. The Man in the Wooden Hat runs in parallel and tells the story from his wife Elisabeth's perspective. I was told I didn't need to read Old Filth first and I was certainly not aware of any missing background problems when reading this apparently stand-alone novel.

The book opens with Edward Feathers, then a young barrister, waiting in Heathrow airport with his right-hand man Albert Ross, for a flight to Hong Kong. Edward has proposed to Elisabeth a Scottish girl, born in China of ex-patriate parents who spent the war in Japanese internment camps, and is waiting to hear her answer. Albert Ross is a Chinese dwarf, a solicitor with a formidable reputation as Edward's fixer. Ross wears a trilby hat with a zip compartment containing a pack of cards, which features throughout the story.

The two men are flying to Hong Kong to fight a case against another lawyer, the detested Terry Veneering. Edward Feathers loathes Terry Veneering, for he is everything Edward isn't - "bold, ugly and unstoppable", and "irrepressibly merry" in a way women find irresistible.

The scene shifts to Hong Kong, where we meet Elisabeth, a free-spirit, whose background in the camps has left her rootless and adaptable, unconcerned by money or position. She has a group of girl-friends who are equally unbound by the stuffiness of the ex-patriate community in the Colony, and we begin to wonder how she could possibly get on with the highly conventional Edward.

That night, while looking over the bay as the dropped into the sea, Elisabeth accepts Edwards proposal, despite barely knowing him other than being certain that he is upright and reliable and truly loves her. Within an hour Elisabeth meets Terry Veneering and the scene is set for a life-long struggle for Elisabeth's heart between the upright, honourable Edward and the disreputable Terry.

The book follows the course of these characters over the next fifty years. We drop in and out of their lives, sometimes at pivotal moments, often at more routine periods as Edward becomes Sir Edward and Elisabeth transforms into Betty, the creator of an elaborate Dorset garden. We read of a long marriage which seems to exist by virtue of carefully negotiated space, with both partners taking time out for business and personal reasons and not really seeming to mind. Secret compartments are carefully maintained over many years, but perhaps the secrets are those which the other partner allows to be private, choosing not to know too much about things which can never be changed.

Obviously with such a long time period to be spanned in relatively few pages, the book is more like a series of snapshots, but perhaps a better word would be collage, for the episodes are carefully assembled to make a bigger picture which by the end of the book has made a coherent whole, satisfying in its completeness. Jane Gardam's skill is in blending humour and pathos, the eccentricities of the characters seeing them through loss and disappointment with a certain panache which makes for entertaining reading. We see the decisions that people make are those they must make, the outcome of personality, and there is no point sitting in judgement on how people are and what they do, when in reality they have so little choice most of the time. The authors ability to understate, to play down crises and to move on through them is typical of the people she writes about - who were taught in their youth to pay little attention to themselves and to "just soldier on".

But foremost the book is about marriage, particularly long marriages, which survive because people's expectations were never high in the first place and had a sense of the wider context in which their relationship operates. The moment-by-moment thrill of the other person is not something which runs well with the accommodations and compromises which the years bring. Jane Gardam shows with great subtlety the power of a union which somehow survives despite not only external attacks but also those which rise up from within.
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