Book Review: Old Filth by Jane Gardam

With a wink and an acknowledged nod to Rudyard Kipling,
Jane Gardam gives us the story of Edward Feathers, a
Raj orphan.

A Raj orphan, the phrase, refers to a child whose parents
were serving in the British Empire, in Feathers’ case, in
Malaya.  His mother dies at his birth, and his father is
distant emotionally.  “Eddie” is raised by servants, and sent
Home, to England, for his schooling when he is four and a half.

The title is jarring to the eye, but, “Filth” is an acronym enjoyed
by the law community in Britain which means “failed in London,
try Hong Kong”.  And when the book opens, we discover that
Feathers “Filth”, has made a name for himself in law in Hong Kong
and he and his wife, Betty, have enjoyed many years living there
— a city with  “sky-high curtains of unwinking lights.”

But when this novel begins, Filth and Betty have left their home in
Hong Kong and are set to retire in a small house in Dorsetshire.  It’s
in a remote area which suits the curmudgeonly Feathers fine.
Unbelievably, the house next door to it becomes available and
another retired lawyer from the East moves in.  There had always
been a prickly relationship between Feathers and the new neighbor,
Terry Veneering.  Plot thickens.

Through flashbacks, we learn about Feathers’ childhood and schooling,
the introduction to Pat Ingoldby, a school chum, who would influence
him the rest of his life and bit by bit, flash by flash, back and forth,
Gardam weaves a web that gives us some insight into what the life
of a child born as a Raj orphan might be like.

At one point in his young life,  during WW II, he is sent back to
rejoin his father as an “evacuee”.  He is on board the “Breath O’Dunoon”
for four months on his way to Singapore.  On board he meets one other
evacuee, a fourteen year old boy named Albert Ross, who pronounces
his name Albert Loss because of his Chinese accent.  He is a character
who might stay with you–“Pick a card, any card . . ..”

Jane Gardam writes beautifully throughout, and when they are
on board this ship, we read,  “The last of Ireland (sank) into the sea.
Great grey sea-coloured ships like lead pencils stood about the ocean
and smaller brisker ships nosed about them.  The Breath of O’Dunoon
looked like a tramp at a ball.  The Atlantic lay still beneath its skin.”

They swing around the “bulge of Africa and at last out upon  the
hot-plate of the Indian Ocean . . .”  When they are within reach of
Singapore they find out that it has been bombed by the Japanese,
and the ship turns back to England, taking wounded, too.

Then there are the days of World War II when Feathers serves–
sometimes as a companion to Queen Mary–with slogans abounding:
“Careless talk costs lives.”   (Loose lips sink ships.)

Still later, Feathers is in the hospital because of possible heart attack.
“Where male and female lay alongside each other in various stages of
ill health.  Like Pompeii.”     He asks to see a priest.   “The priest, when
he arrived, was wearing jeans and a T-shirt and Filth did not believe
in him.  He would have preferred a female to this one, and that was
saying something.”

There are twists and turns in the book which carry the reader right
up to the last pages–and the flashbacks make more sense as a good
way to tell the story.  I enjoyed this book because of the writing and
as a way to peek into a way of life in a different time.   I think it
would make a good book discussion selection, too.

This book was published in 2004.  Jane Gardam is an accomplished
writer with many works, many awards.

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2 Responses to Book Review: Old Filth by Jane Gardam

  1. Pingback: The Gimme: What to Read this Week, May 31 | The Gimlet Reader

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