Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

The Man in the Wooden Hat

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

The Man in the Wooden Hat

Article excerpt

Jane Gardam's sequel to "Old Filth" paints a rich and mature portrait of a decades-long marriage.

One of the more memorably named characters to come along since

Dickens stopped naming them is Old Filth, Sir Edward Feathers QC.

(His nickname has nothing to do with his morals or standard of

personal hygiene. It stands for "Failed in London, Try Hong

Kong.")

British novelist Jane Gardam - the only writer ever to win the

Whitbread Prize twice - gave her hero an appropriately Dickensian

childhood to go along with that fabulous moniker, as well as a long

and apparently reasonably contented marriage to Betty.

Gardam's earlier novel "Old Filth" looked back at the long

life of Edward Feathers, from his neglected childhood in Malaysia and

later Wales to his happy youth at boarding school and his illustrious

career in Hong Kong. That latter was facilitated by an unlikely

benefactor, a biracial dwarf cardsharp named Albert Ross (aka

Albatross, aka Coleridge), to whom Edward gave his father's watch

when they were both evacuees during World War II. (Edward, who had

desperately wanted to enlist, got his wish when the ship they were on

had to turn back after the Japanese captured Singapore.)

Both Edward and Betty were dead by the end of "Old Filth," so it

might be hard to manage a sequel. Instead, Gardam has written a

companion book, The Man in the Wooden Hat, which fills in Betty's

side of the story - from her childhood in a Japanese internment

camp in Shanghai to her improbable retirement planting tulips and

wearing pearls in the Donheads in Britain. The new novel interlocks

with "Old Filth" in ways that bring even more resonance to the

first novel. Taken together they provide an unusually rich portrait

of a marriage and offer a quality pretty rare in today's fiction:

maturity.

The result brings to mind a British version of Evan Connell's

famous his-and-hers novels, "Mrs. Bridge" and "Mr. Bridge,"

but with less bitterness and more silent endurance. Both Edward and

Betty suffered unbelievably dark childhoods. But where a modern

American couple would hash out every miserable moment and derive

years' worth of psychoanalysis, the Featherses keep the past firmly

buried. "She doesn't speak about it," Edward tells Ross of

Betty's time in the prison camp, during which both parents died.

"One doesn't intrude." For Betty's part, she realizes on her

honeymoon that, for her emotional survival, she'll need "an

unassailable privacy with my own life equal to his."

It's not necessary to read "Old Filth" first to enjoy "The

Man in the Wooden Hat," but the novels definitely offer more when

read side by side. Readers will learn the origin of Betty's strand

of "guilty" pearls, why they chose to retire in the Donheads

after half a lifetime spent on the other side of the world, and even

where Betty bought the tulips she was planting when she died. …

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