Monday, March 28, 2011

Old Filth by Jane Gardam

Have you ever read a book and then arrived at the end surprised at how few pages it had? A story that feels so much larger than it seems could be contained in so few pages? Such is Jane Gardam's Old Filth. When I turned the last page of the book, it seemed impossible that Gardam created such a larger than life character in only 289 pages.

Before I start the review, I have a story to tell a confession to make. Old Filth along with its companion, The Man in the Wooden Hat was sent to me for review almost a year ago by the fine folks at Europa Editions, whose books are so lovely in their construction (and content!) that I begin to love them before even reading the first page. I started Old Filth in long ago last year and made it through about 60 pages before I sat it aside. You see, Old Filth is a fantastic book, and it reads almost like a classic, and in keeping with that reputation, requires some actual effort at comprehension and a little extra time to really relish the prose. In the run-up to summer last year, it was particularly ill-suited to me, so I put it aside for a later date, not figuring it would be quite this much later.

In the end, though, I'm glad (if somewhat ashamed) that I put it off, because I knew I wouldn't like it if I trudged through it then, but in the late winter when I was hungering for something of substance, Old Filth was just the thing. It might be a year late, but it's going to be a heck of a lot more positive of a review, too. So, I'm sorry Europa folks...I think?

Old Filth is the story of Edward Feathers born shortly after the end of World War I, the son of a mother who died shortly after childbirth in the British colony of Malay and his father, a distant District Officer of the colony. At 4, he's sent back "Home" to England for schooling only ever to see his father, who never seems to have loved him anyway, for one more fleeting moment. Effectively orphaned, Eddie grows up alone, constantly estranged from those around him for one reason or another. His unhappy past doesn't keep him from success, however. Despite failing as a lawyer in London he becomes a successful lawyer and a judge in the Far East - hence his name, an acronymn for Failed In London Try Hong Kong. The opening pages of the book find Filth a retired but still unassailable old barrister whose reputation has grown to such mythic proportions that it obstructs the hard truths of a man so damaged by his past that he has found himself forever unable to love. It's only as Filth toddles gracefully into old age that he can begin to rediscover the parts of himself that he has locked away and come to terms with the dark secrets that made him the man he became.

Old Filth is everything a good character study should be. The book starts out with an elderly, retired Filth who is famous among his peers but also a profound mystery. Then it begins to deconstruct the facade he's constructed, peeling back layer after layer and we begin to know and understand the man even as he unlocks the doors on his past and begins to rediscover himself. Gardam's crisp, clear prose weaves effortlessly between past and present tying together memories of the past and behaviors of the present thereby giving readers a full picture of a fragile boy always destined to lose those he loved, a boy with unthinkable secrets who became a man that always held himself at a distance from those he could have loved.

By the end of the book, Filth feels like a friend with his secrets laid bare before us. Your heart will break again and again for him as he endures confusion and rejection as he tries to make connections with people whose concern for him is fleeting. You will be proud of the successful, polished, determined gentleman he became even despite circumstances that could have crushed him again and again. In short, Filth is a complicated, vivid character that smacks of reality, and a man you, like me, will begin to miss as soon as you turn the last page.

(Thanks again to the publisher for sending me the book to review.)


  1. Reads like a classic? Sounds good to me. Plus I find it rather serendipitous that my post today is about books about growing older, and this one looks like it could fit that category!

  2. I think we had similar experiences with this book. When I reviewed it I said that I wished it had been as long as a Trollope novel. So many fascinating characters that could have been spun out even more.

  3. Pretty good post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I have really enjoyed reading your blog posts

  4. I've been wanting to try Jane Gardam as a friend recently mentioned one of her books. I am so happy you reinforced what she said:)

  5. I have something by Jane Gardam on my shelf, though I can't remember what at the moment. I'm encouraged to read your review! I think I'll like Gardam, when I get around to reading her.

  6. Oh, I'm so bad, Europa sent me these two books also, ages ago, and I kept meaning to (a) email and tell them I'd changed my address and (b) read the books. But I have yet to do either one of those things. Eek.