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National Post: "All three Gardam books are beautifully written but it’s a pleasure to note that Last Friends, is the most enjoyable, the funniest and the most touching."

Date: Oct 8 2013

In the first half of the 20th century, English-speaking children across the world learned that the sun never sets on the British Empire. In the second half of the century, however, the sun began setting, to the surprise of all those British subjects who believed in the Empire and lived by running it. Eventually the Empire became a memory and what was once Kipling’s subject and Tennyson’s was handed over to historians and novelists.

A grand figure among the ex-colonial novelists is Jane Gardam, who at age 84 recently completed her trilogy about imperialists who prospered in Hong Kong until they realized they were no longer welcome there. Betty Feathers, one of Gardam’s three main characters, expresses the geographical confusion of her class. She refers to Hong Kong as “out here” and wonders whether she and her husband should go “home” when he retires. Home? He was born in Malaya, the son of a British bureaucrat; she was born in China to British parents. They will always wonder where “home” can be found. Finally they settle in an old Dorset village with a dubious connection to Thomas Hardy.

This is where Gardam finds them. She’s been called an end-of-Empire novelist but she’s much more than that. She’s also an end-of-life novelist. She understands, as many do not, that the old are astonishingly similar to the young. In her novels aged characters discover, often to their dismay, that their ancient jealousies and prehistoric humiliations are still living within them, still causing pain.

Her old characters also discover the true horror embedded in the phrase “long-term,” as in long-term grudge. They know the shame left behind by abandoned friendships and the way that foolish young love can continue to live a furtive life behind a wrinkled face.

Gardam sees the comedy of old age, the contradiction between outer dignity and inner chaos that can erupt in utter foolishness: One of her octogenarian characters dies because he starts a fist fight to defend the honour of a dead woman he always loved. Old age does not guarantee quietude.

The trilogy’s first book, Old Filth, introduces us to Sir Edward Feathers, QC, who has become rich as a lawyer specializing in construction law in Asia (the same trade as Gardam’s late husband, David). Feathers is gorgeously tailored, emotionally stunted, irredeemably pompous. His nickname refers to an acronym describing certain English careers: Filth stands for Failed in London, Try Hong Kong.

The second book, The Man with the Wooden Hat, focusses on Sir Edward’s wife, Betty. He proposed to her by letter on creamy, official-looking stationery. Betty decided to accept. “It won’t be passion, but better without, probably. And he’s remarkable and I’ll grow to love him very much. There’s nothing about him that’s unlovable.”

But in old age Betty feels herself drawn once more toward an aged former lover who happens to be her husband’s bitter enemy. Worse, she develops both maternal and sexual feelings for the lover’s brilliant wastrel son.

The final volume, Last Friends, tells the story of the enemy, Sir Terence Veneering QC. They are both accomplished barristers but Feathers considers Veneering what the English call louche, meaning shifty. Vaneering drinks too much and plays honky-tone piano.

The second and third books rework the first, rather than extending the story like sequels. They recall the Deptford Trilogy that Robertson Davies unfolded during the early 1970s. In Fifth Business a schoolteacher tells us about someone throwing a snowball containing a rock, which unintentionally hits a pregnant woman. In The Manticore we learn about the unhappy son of the boy who threw the snowball. In World of Wonders we follow the career of the boy whose premature birth was precipitated by that accident.

Each of Gardam’s books, like those of Davies, can stand alone but those who absorb them in order can see the key events through three different prisms. It’s a fictional version of an archeological dig, each level revealing fresh secrets. In the second and third books the reader often comes upon familiar events that startle us by at first appearing unfamiliar.

All three Gardam books are beautifully written but it’s a pleasure to note that Last Friends, is the most enjoyable, the funniest and the most touching.

Like lawyers and historians, Gardam knows that we are all bad witnesses: Each participant takes away a separate impression. More important, each of us lives a different life in the mind of every individual who thinks about us, a life that never ceases to evolve beneath the waves of memory.

All three Gardam books are beautifully written but it’s a pleasure to note that Last Friends, is the most enjoyable, the funniest and the most touching. At its core is the boyhood of Veneering on a wretched little street in Teesside, in northeast England.

His mother, Florrie, lives by delivering coal to her neighbours and apparently loves her work. When travelling Russian acrobats come to town one of them impregnates Florrie before breaking his back while doing a stunt. Florrie marries him and turns out to be as devoted to her invalid husband and remarkable son as she is to coal delivery. The boy Terry is tall and athletic like his father, and spectacularly bright. In his early adolescence German bombers hit Teesside, demolishing his whole street and his parents with it. His furious ambition propels him to the top levels of commercial law.

His Russian father’s name being unpronounceable by English tongues, a friend renames him Veneering, after an arriviste character in Our Mutual Friend. That’s far from the only Dickensian touch in the trilogy. Like Dickens, Gardam understands the desperation of the poor, the different desperation of the rich and the ways the two feelings interact. When a character visits London he finds himself in a Dickensian fog that “stained your clothes, your hair, got up your nose and down your ears. Your chest wheezed. When you sneezed, your handkerchief was dark ochre.” Gardam also creates Dickensian gents who make a point of encouraging bright lads. Often she uses 19th-century patterns of thought to explain the 20th century to the 21st.

She writes a light, easy style that quickens suddenly when she tells us something we didn’t anticipate. Like Davies, she fills the pages of her trilogy with surprises that make the reader hurry forward.

She’s given us an enriching version of the recent past that deserves to live long into the future.

-Robert Fulford