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Even better than its five-star predecessor
on 30 December 2009
This is a treat for those who have read `Old Filth', Jane Gardam's previous book about Sir Edward Feathers and his wife Betty (see my Amazon review), but also for those who have not read it (and will surely want to read it next), for, though the knowledge of its predecessor will add an additional layer of enjoyment, this book does not assume such knowledge. And anyway, significant though it is, there is only a modicum of overlap between the two novels (and there are even two small discrepancies between the events described).
The focus of `Old Filth' was on Sir Edward; here it is on Betty: we learn much, much more about her than in the first book. Edward we see as the kind of person he already was when they married - a workaholic and unable to give much emotionally; but we would have to go to the earlier novel to see what had made him become like that. The current book begins with their engagement and more or less ends where the earlier book more or less began.
There are more disconcerting elements in the second book than in the first. The dwarf Albert Ross, who is devoted to Edward and knows him better than anyone else does, seems more spooky. His hat is an important part of him, and the title of the book suggests the great influence Jane Gardam attributes to him (though why the hat of the title is wooden we discover in a single image near the end of the book.) She even has him survive Edward, when in the previous book Edward outlived him - one of the two discrepancies noted above. (The other relates to a watch). Betty's behaviour when she has just been engaged (the oddest engagement, to be followed by the oddest wedding) is more upsetting and indeed hard to explain. There is in the first half of the book a note of hysteria. It is hard to believe that this could ever be a successful marriage.
And yet it was - though at a price that will be fully apparent only in the last few pages. Betty does have to go through trials - and very movingly they are described - but her relationship with Edward is not the cause of them.
We move back and forth between a retreat in the depth of the Dorset countryside and the throbbing life of Hong Kong. Again the writing is both funny and touching.
It is, I think, an even better book than `Old Filth' - and I had given five stars to that!