Last friends are old friends, make no mistake. Anyone who has read previous books by British writer Jane Gardam will slide effortlessly into this novel. And anyone who has not read Gardam (she is responsible for more than 20 books) is encouraged to read OLD FILTH and THE MAN IN THE WOODEN HAT, the first two novels of this wonderfully entertaining trilogy.
Does LAST FRIENDS stand on its own? Well, yes, in a manner of speaking. Gardam adds bits of background here and there, always in an entertaining fashion. But layers of richness are heaped on if one knows in advance the story of the inimitable barrister Sir Edward Feathers, also known as Old Filth (an acronym for “Failed In London, Try Hong Kong”).
Most of this novel’s characters were born between the two great wars, which is when Gardam herself was born. Lives are linked eccentrically, irritatingly and with abiding affection and loyalty. Friendships were formed either during childhood or while out and about the Empire, where two titans of English and international law — Filth and the late Sir Terence Veneering — practiced their professions, loved the same woman and despised each other.
LAST FRIENDS is structured in three parts. The first, “Dorset,” had me laughing out loud. As it begins, a grande dame named Dulcie travels to London to attend the memorial service for her longtime friend Old Filth. Attendees at the funeral are so wizened that no one is quite certain who each of the others is. “There was a pew full of generations of a family with the queer pigmentation of expats. Britons — a pale cheese-colour, like Wensleydale. There was a row of Straits Chinese and some Japanese who were being reprimanded about their mobile phones. There was a huge sad man rambling about at the back of the church near the medieval knights who lay with broken swords and noses.”
When someone vaguely familiar approaches Dulcie, she suddenly realizes that “the name, the face had been at the rim of [her] perception all day, like the faint trail of light from a dead planet.” What follows is a witty tale about Sir Frederick Fiscal-Smith, an itinerant judge who appears through another crevice from the past, someone who bore witness but was never exactly like the others.
Part two, “Teesside,” provides the childhood story of Sir Terry, the son of a Russian acrobat who, after an accident, was stranded in the English Midlands. In this section, we settle in for a serious read. The youthful Terry’s wartime experiences are as unique and unexpected as other characters’ eccentricities.
In part three, while Terry’s story continues, Fiscal-Smith and Dulcie, the last of the old friends, reenter. From these three, we piece together the missing parts of the stories of all of the others. But why should we care about the old boys who worked the courtrooms of the world, and the women who met and married them? One reason is that there is no clear distinction between absurdity and endearment in these pages. Gardam writes with a caring touch, and this makes us want more. The friends who populate her novel, despite their personal tragedies, are old but not frail; they remain spirited and do not give up; they have particular and peculiar loyalties, and they keep last questions — and answers — to themselves. When someone steps out of the unspoken code, “he’s broken the pattern,” as Dulcie warns. “The cracks will spread. They’ll spread across all our crumbling lives, the few of us who are left.”
Each character, whether high and mighty or lowly and knowledgeable, has a fragment to tell. Through the fog of age and shifting memories, each brings to light certain bits of the larger story, which, when pieced together, add up to all of their lives. With all their blemishes, when Gardam’s characters speak, their words are worth listening to. “Life,” Dulcie says, “is really ridiculous. Why were we thought worth creating if we are such bloody fools?”
What is there to say about Jane Gardam, finally? She is a brilliant writer. Her prose sparkles with wit, compassion and humor. She keeps us entertained, and she keeps us guessing. Be thankful for her books. Be thankful for this trilogy, which is ultimately an elegy, created with deep affection. Trust and hope that she’s at work on the next.