Toronto Star: "...a lovely adventure."
Date: Aug 29 2013
Although not as famous here as in her native England, award-winning novelist Jane Gardam enjoys a cult-like following among admirers. Her characters are eccentric, slightly mad, secretive — in other words, English. Her wit and compassion bring to life unlikely places — like Teesside on the northern English coast, or St. Ague, a Dorset village with its quietly seething collection of retirees.
Last Friends concludes Gardam’s addictive “Filth” trilogy (an acronym for Failed in London, Try Hong Kong) played out against a backdrop of fading Empire. Sir Edward Feathers, known affectionately as Old Filth, and his rival in law and love, Sir Terry Veneering, after decades of mutual hatred, became elderly neighbours in Dorset — and finally, friends. These “titans” of the law in post-war Hong Kong have “clashed their last” and departed this earth.
So sit back, and prepare to enjoy the “last scene in the last act,” starring hitherto minor players like Dulcie, a judge’s widow, and “little” Fiscal-Smith, a lawyer, the eponymous friends. Like Filth, Dulcie was a “Raj orphan,” sent “Home” to an England forever alien.
In infancy, Eddie Feathers had been “rocked by the night sounds of water and trees and invisible creatures and watched over by different gods,” and his establishment funeral in London draws an intriguing crowd. But the mood is not especially sad. Mourners include the Dorset village set, a mysterious lover from his youth, and a dwarf, “waved off in a splendid car, tossing his hat to the crowd like a hero.”
Readers of the previous two Filth volumes will recognize the hat-tosser. But each book in Gardam’s trilogy is satisfying on its own; in her stories, everyone seems alive. Back in St. Ague, Filth’s house is ablaze with light, in tribute to a craggy soul who “smelled — rather excitingly — of Wright’s coal-tar soap, a commodity beginning to be rare in many parts of the country.” We miss him too — one of a kind.
Yet farce, not sentiment, soon resets the mood when the two aged friends get locked in the freezing village church, drinking Communion wine and donning High Church vestments to keep warm. And might this hilarity signal fresh warmth between them? Not quite. “Never exactly one of us. Jumped up from nowhere,” sniffs the chilled and angry Dulcie, as she sends the desolate Fiscal-Smith packing,
“Nowhere,” presumably, includes neither the Raj nor its children. So Gardam, having given us Filth and his wife Betty’s tales in the first two books, now does the honours for Terry Veneering, whose love affair with Betty merits gossip to this day. Born poor in Herringfleet, Teesside, on the “cold north-east coast of England,” Terry’s life was tough—and oddly lucky — but grew tougher when German bombs started to fall. Yet Veneering is never quite as sympathetic as Filth, and we return to the present with relief.
Gardam’s octogenarians simply refuse to conform to stereotype: they change their minds, plan for the future, forget they’re old. Even upright Filth succumbed to “frivolity” and took a plane to Malaysia, dying happily on arrival. Dulcie too embarks on a trip — to deepest Yorkshire — determined to undo the hurt she’s caused. Imagine a contrite Maggie Smith from Downton Abbey — in a car, heading north. It’s a lovely adventure.
More seriously, what do we do about last friends? Here’s one solution: “Like old clothes in a cupboard, there comes the moment to examine them for moths. Perhaps throw them out and forget them. Yes.” This is not at all what happens, naturally. Instead, Gardam offers a chance to reconsider our own assumptions about friends, present and past — and to reread her entire trilogy.