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The Guardian: " ambitious and complex portrait of extraordinary times."

Date: Jun 7 2013

In her novels Old Filth and The Man in the Wooden Hat, Jane Gardam has already written about the entangled lives of three people: Edward Feathers, a QC specialising in construction law in Hong Kong and then a judge, Feathers' wife Betty, and Terry Veneering, Feathers' career rival and Betty's lover for one night before her marriage. Old Filth was centred on Feathers and The Man in the Wooden Hat on Betty. Now Last Friends adds Veneering's story to the mix.

Usually a trilogy moves forward through time, each book taking up more or less where the previous one left off; Gardam does something stranger. Each of her three books retells the story from a vantage point in the character's old age. Hidden elements come to light in each novel, and each is inflected differently by the protagonists' different characters. For a significant portion of all the novels at least one or two and sometimes all of the protagonists are dead, which makes these fictions – perhaps Last Friends most of all – feel uncannily, giddily as if they are poised on a threshold, as if all the matter in these packed, complicated lives, thick with history, is about to fall over an edge into oblivion (from which only the novel-record saves it).

This late, late perspective doesn't mean the writing is gloomy – on the contrary, it's exuberant and funny and dizzy and a little bit frightening. "The smell of deep-blue hyacinths in bowls set heads spinning and the polished blackness of the windows before the curtains were drawn across showed that the wet and starless world had passed into infinite space. Dulcie thought again about the last scene of the last act." Dulcie is the widow of Pastry Willy, another judge; she's a friend of the Featherses and Veneering and survives them all. Dulcie is not senile, exactly, but she's sometimes confused, and her confusion is part of the way we see things in Late Friends. "So much going on … that she seemed to be seeing for the first time, or analysing for the first time, though she knew it was everyday, as habitual as looking at a clock or holding out a hand. Yet whatever did it mean?"

The novel closes with Dulcie making her way into church on Easter Sunday: the last word on the last page is "Resurrection". And the writing everywhere is rich with light effects. Lights blaze from a house supposed to be empty; in Malta a freshwater stream falls through a crack in a clifftop, a "spout of spittle shining like light above the ocean"; the view from Veneering's house is "a shimmering water-colour dream". The story shifts from past to present, and from England to elsewhere, like pieces shaken up in a kaleidoscope; scenes and characters loom vividly and then flash past.

The one thing old age doesn't feel like in Gardam's world is repose, or a conclusion, or an arrival anywhere – even though retirement in rural Dorset, which all these characters choose, ought to feel like the embodiment of an English Home (the word has a capital letter for these children of the end of the Empire). But where's Home? Betty dies in her garden, but Veneering dies in Malta after punching someone who's insulted Betty's memory, and Feathers dies stepping off the plane in "what he still called The Malay States". As a baby he was wrapped in the arms of a childish ayah beside the Black River in the jungles of Malaysia, "watched over by different gods". And Veneering, it turns out in Late Friends, was from somewhere as remote from wealthy rural Dorset as Malaysia ever was.

The story of Veneering's childhood in Teesside is the strong centre of this third part of the trilogy. He's the child of Florrie Benson, who heaves coal for a living ("she adored her work"), and a mysterious Russian acrobat and dancer who may be also a spy; Florrie nurses the Russian after she sees him fall in the circus and break his back.

Black with coal dust, wearing a man's coat tied with a rope around her middle, Florrie is perhaps the most romantic character in the trilogy, passionate in her devotion to her husband and son. And Veneering is so convincingly, solidly imagined, from the lanky, athletic, solitary child with white-blond hair, "in full gear from the start", to the handsome, quixotic old man still in love with Betty Feathers after she's dead. (Whereas Feathers thinks, with relief, that Betty "was not necessary to him any more".)

Veneering makes himself over into a part of the establishment without ever exactly disavowing his working-class origins (mostly, with more buttoned-up manners, nobody asks). The social mobility of the postwar era is part of the subject of Gardam's trilogy, an ambitious and complex portrait of extraordinary times.

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—Tessa Cadley


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