24 May 2010

Book Review: Old Filth by Jane Gardam

  
Old Filth
Jane Gardam

According to the New York Times Book Review, “Old Filth belongs in the Dickensian pantheon of memorable characters.” Not being a Dickens aficionado I am not sure how true this rings, but it seems more true than not. Sir Edward Feathers is Old Filth. A legend in British legal circles, Filth is an acronym for “Failed in London Try Hong Kong”. Of course to my eyes that would be "Old Filthk", but that wouldn’t be as entertaining would it.

The book Old Filth follows our hero as an 80-year old widower looking back on his colorful life and his attempt to make sense of his current state of being. His mother died days after his birth, his emotionally troubled father abandons the infant Edward to the native Malays that live on his estate. At age five Edward is sent off to learn English before being sent to Wales to live in a foster home with two other empire-orphan cousins. Then there is school, the War, Oxford (or was it Cambridge? Oops), the Bar, Hong Kong, back to the UK, etc. Told with a fair amount of narrative and temporal shifts, the story is nonetheless fairly easy to follow and often delightful.

Old Filth is full of quiet adventure. The trappings and situations in real life would certainly be an adventure for most anyone, but they aren’t played as such. No swashbuckling, edge of your seat kind of thing. Rather, Gardam focuses on the emotional side of things and the inner workings of Old Filth’s increasingly introspective and searching mind. Along with much that is amusing is a thoughtful, poignant life story with more than a few twists and turns. One twist in particular, perhaps the climax of the book, will surprise even though it has been hinted at here and there.

My only real challenge with Old Filth is that it could have been a much longer book. Following the earlier Dickens comparison, one could easily imagine this in a different time being serialized and stretched to Dickensian or Trollopian lengths. I wouldn’t say any of the characters are one dimensional. In fact most of them, even the bit characters, show enough texture that it leaves you wanting to know more about them. Gardam could have spun this one into a much longer tale if she had wished. But then again, that may have flattened the arc of her narrative too much and made Old Filth something she never meant it too be. This one is definitely worth a read.

(Spell-Check approves of “Dickensian” but balks at “Trollopian”. For those of us who prefer Anthony over Charles, this is a grave injustice.)
  

12 comments:

  1. I really enjoyed this book, and to a lesser extent the recent sequel (Man in the somethingorother hat??). Am a big fan of Jane Gardam, though some of her novels are quite a lot more female than this, dealing with girls coming of age. Have you read any of her others?

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  2. Wow, a bookstore employee JUST told me about this author on Saturday, and here you are reviewing her! It's strange she is so prolific and well-liked in the literary community and I've never heard of her, but I think I shall have to find a way to read her. Thank you!

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  3. I would really like to read this on the strength of your recommendation Thomas - it sounds most interesting. The "filthk" thing has always struck me as well.

    thanks for sharing
    Hannah

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  4. OK T.: re: video: are we talking about sarcasm and humor papering over patheticness and tragedy again?

    and bermuda? oh really? i'm not sooo sure.

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  5. Verity: I have read Queen of the Tambourine earlier this year or late last year. It had its high points, but I liked this one much better.

    Aarti: I had a similar experience. I saw this title and Queen of the Tambourine in Barnes and Noble last year and almost bought both of them after the covers grabbed me enough to read the blurbs. But I didn't. That very same day I went to a charity shop and found the same two titles for $3 each, saving myself about $24. And I have enjoyed them both, but Old Filth more.

    Hannah: It is one of those books that I would recommend to a wide variety of readers. Much of what I read is a little more of an acquired taste, but this one could please the masses (without being dumb).

    Mlle: You may have a point! (But I didn't say that.)

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  6. Ooh, no - I meant The man in the wooden hat - this is the story of Old Filth from his wife's perspective... Very interesting but wait 6 months or so before you give it a go.

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  7. I recently read and loved The Queen of the Tambourine, also by Gardam. I'd never heard of her until she starting getting a little bit of play on the blogs. I'll look for this one.

    Though I'm not sure I agree about making her books longer. The material was certainly there in Queen but I think it would have suffered from it if only becuase it would have to take attention away from the main character. Dickens and Trollope both made their work longer by shifting focus from one storyline to another.

    I think you may have coined Trollopian. It won't enter the dictionary for several years, but you could start a Wikipedia page. ;-)

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  8. I agree with you CB. I wouldn't have wanted Tambourine to be longer. But Old Filth I think might have fared okay. There were multiple characters and storylines that could have been expanded. I'll have to work on getting Trollopian into everyday parlance.

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  9. I just got this and the sequel a few days ago and it is not sitting next to my bedding waiting to jump in with the rest of the books. This had come recommended and I'm glad to see another good review of it.

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  10. Danielle: I didn't even realize there was a sequel until I saw the comments to this post. I am looking forward to checking that out

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  11. I am so happy that you enjoyed this book. I think it sounds like a great story.

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  12. Any book by Jane Gardam gets my very highest recommendation! However, if you do read "Old Filth," by all means follow it up with "The Man in the Wooden Hat." These two books complete the saying, "there's two sides to every story."

    "Queen of the Tambourine" is very good, as well as another earlier one called "Faith Fox."

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