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Sydney Morning Herald: "LAST FRIENDS stays just on the edge of the comfort zone, where Gardam has always done her subversive comic work."

Date: Jun 1 2013

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Jane Gardam's brilliant, late-starting career began in 1971 with A LONG WAY FOR VERONA, a classic novel for children about the puzzles of growing up. Now aged 84, Gardam looks at the bewilderments of old age with the same unsentimental candour. Her new novel, LAST FRIENDS, is not limited to the shrinking daily routine of her characters, becalmed in an English village. It takes in whole lives, long memories and lost childhoods.

LAST FRIENDS completes a set of novels known by the unappetising title of the ''OLD FILTH trilogy''. Filth, as Gardam must surely have grown tired of explaining, was the name given in his profession to her central character, retired barrister Sir Edward Feathers. The initial letters of ''Failed in London Try Hong Kong'' spelt out his career path. The first novel, OLD FILTH, began with the death of Feathers' wife, Betty, and in a series of tragicomic episodes set in present-day England, traced Feathers' shaky footsteps, revisiting decades of public success and private grief, back to his beginnings as an abandoned child of empire. Seemingly a perfect product of upper-middle-class England, Feathers never quite knew who he was or where he belonged. This funny, poignant novel became a bestseller.

Like her readers, Gardam wanted to know more. Feathers' dull wife Betty, best known for her skill in arranging flowers in the village church, pushed forward with a story of her own. THE MAN IN THE WOODEN HAT revealed the uncertain young woman who accepted Feathers' tepid proposal of marriage and discovered passion in an affair with his flashy rival, Terry Veneering.

Now, in LAST FRIENDS, Gardam rotates the globe to see where Veneering came from. Compared with the quintessentially British Empire style of Feathers and Betty, he is an exotic. His surname is improvised. Borrowed from Dickens, it barely covers the tracks of this son of a village girl and a young Cossack dancer, crippled in a fall and left behind in England when his circus goes home. His name is probably Venetski but no one really knows.

Like Feathers and Betty, Veneering grows up during the Second World War. A handsome, clever, devious child, he is more than equal to the adults who try to mould him. Sent off to join a shipload of children, bound for Canada to escape the bombing, he runs away. The ship goes down and he is presumed dead. That leaves him free to choose his own identity. Gardam traces a haphazard education that takes Veneering to Hong Kong, where he meets Feathers and Betty. He is just too late to disrupt their wedding day, but just in time to doom their marriage to dutiful endurance.

The earlier novels in the trilogy kept Veneering in shadow, his relationship with Betty a source of astonishment, his own feelings unknown, except for his hatred of Feathers. Chance made them neighbours in a Dorset village; a farcical accident brought the two old men together after Betty's death.

In LAST FRIENDS, the village people who knew all three in this odd triangle are left to puzzle over the complications of their lives. The novel begins with Feathers' memorial service and zigzags back into the past.

Sequels are always risky. LAST FRIENDS could have been just a weaker brew from the same English Breakfast tea-leaves as OLD FILTH. Yet this last look at Betty, her husband and her lover has some surprises, and the shifts in viewpoint are briskly disconcerting. Gentler than Muriel Spark's MEMENTO MORI, which in some ways it resembles, LAST FRIENDS stays just on the edge of the comfort zone, where Gardam has always done her subversive comic work.

—Brenda Niall



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