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Dalls Morning News: "Readers of Jane Gardam's novel, Old Filth, will no doubt find it a masterpiece in storytelling."

Date: May 29 2006

Hard Truths Surface in a Colony's Cocoon

Author's understated treatment of war carries a jolt…

Readers of Jane Gardam's novel, Old Filth, will no doubt find it a masterpiece in storytelling. Less concerned with the wearying flashiness of style exhibited by so many contemporary novels, Ms. Gardam uses unobtrusive flashback to tell the story of her central character, Sir Edward Feathers.

Simultaneously, Ms. Gardam illuminates the alien harshness and isolation of the British colonized country of Malaya. When Captain Alistair Feathers, the governor of Malaya, loses his wife in childbirth, he shows absolutely no interest in Edward, his newborn infant. Rather, he sends for Auntie May from the mission, along with her servant Ada, daughter of the infant's wet nurse. Auntie May vows to the boy's father that she will stay and "risk the monsoon in order to see that all is well as can be for him."

Feathers never even asks to see the baby, but the villagers become entranced by him: "By the time Aunt May left a week later the newborn ... with his bright blue eyes and white, white skin and curly chestnut hair ... was the amazement of the whole village."

Edward and Ada develop a close bond that all too soon will be severed. By the time child reaches the age of 4, Auntie returns to take Edward to be schooled in English for six months before the journey home, where he will live with a Welsh family until he is 8. When he leaves his Welsh family, Edward will go on to study at his father's prep school and then at his old public school. This was the custom for British children born in Malaya.

Seeing his son off, Alistair gives the boy a silver box that belonged to the child's mother. Edward asks his father whether he has Ada's permission to take the box, and Alistair dismisses the child's question:

"I say you can. I am your father."

"You can't be," said Edward.

Silence fell and Auntie May's hands began to shake.

"And why not?"

"Because you've been here all the time without me."

Edward, with a child's innocent and outspoken response, grasps that something has not been right.

Old Filth, as Edward comes to be called, later marries Betty, a woman who seems to make up for much of her husband's traumas. While many works concerned with European or American colonialism devote a good deal of explication of the politics buzzing in the outside world, Ms. Gardam barely hints at world events, even an event as major as World War II.

Referring to World War II as merely the "War," Ms. Gardam lulls the reader into almost dismissing it as simply an ongoing condition of life, not an essential piece of the story. As it turns out, nothing could be further from the truth. Later the author makes more detailed references to the Japanese and the Nazis that effectively jolt the reader into attention.

The narrative's understated treatment of so shattering a war sheds a discomforting light on the privileges of colonial remove. Ms. Gardam's storytelling brings us about as close as possible to the lives of isolated colonists for whom one of the most devastating wars goes on in some faraway place.

by Paula Friedman, who is a freelance writer in Oakland, Calif.

The paperback edition of Old Filth is scheduled for release this week.