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Philadelphia Inquirer: "A broad and colorful and complete tale, with a poignant heart."

Date: Jun 13 2006

A lively tale of a British colonial child growing up, growing old…

“Old Filth” is Sir Edward Feathers' nickname, and it is old filth that he tries to cleanse himself of in Jane Gardam's novel. The nickname, which Feathers is said to have invented, stands for Failed in London Try Hong Kong. He did, and made a smashing success of it, as a lawyer and then a judge, but there's little about that here. Instead, Old Filth tells the story of what made the man, and of his disintegration.

Old Filth is about a specific kind of lost childhood, and about lost children and what becomes of them. It's a tale of formative years and experiences, and of old age (captured particularly well by Gardam), the narrative alternating between scenes of the octogenarian, retired and then widowed in Dorset, and scenes from his childhood and youth.

Feathers' father was a District Officer in colonial Malaya; his mother died shortly after giving birth to him. Motherless, and with a father incapable of showing the boy the slightest attention or love, Feathers' situation was more extreme than most, but his fate was identical to that of any number of other British "Empire orphans." As young children they were shipped back to civilization as soon as they were old enough, put into foster care, and then, a few years later, sent on to boarding school. This is a book filled with families broken in this way, and it is both a condemnation of the practice and a memorial to its victims (Gardam dedicates the book to Raj Orphans - and their parents).

Despite this ugliness, this isn't a dark, accusing work of fiction. Gardam has crafted a sparkling entertainment in which youth and old age aren't the only starkly contrasted elements. She's a very funny writer, and her light touch and humor - there are situations and characters that verge on the absurd or caricature throughout - support her fundamentally hopeful outlook.

There are only a few scenes of Feathers' earliest years, all moments of transition: his birth, the journey from idyllic Malaya to his foster home in Wales when he is 41/2, the school headmaster picking him up from there a few years later. Each transition is marked by tragedy and loss. The first two are obvious enough - the death of his mother, and being ripped from the Malay family that raised him - but it is the tragedy in Wales that marks him most profoundly.

Something bad happened there, but it is only slowly revealed over the course of the novel. It is not that it is a repressed memory. Rather, it is a completely internalized one that defined Feathers' life, and that of his two cousins, Babs and Claire, in care in the same home. It is so much a part of their identities that they hardly need speak of it. A rare moment of decisive action in a life of passive submission, it nevertheless is only the most sensational of the disappointments and traumas of Feathers' youth. A desperate letting go, it was a release from an untenable situation, but the relief is only partial. The larger longing and needs, for love and family and stability, remain unfulfilled. Keeping the exact nature of the tragedy secret for so long adds some narrative tension, as the old man slowly  confronts this (and the rest of his past), but Gardam presents such vivid characters and relationships that it really is only one more piece of the rich larger picture.

Despite its eponymous hero's damaged childhood, Old Filth isn't a sad tale. The beginning and end of Feathers' life weren't uneventful, and there's tremendous vitality to Gardam's descriptions of both the past and the present. Her portraits of this specific example and the more general experience of the British colonial childhood are remarkable, as is that of the old man's grief as he mourns for his wife and for the emptiness of his life.

Much is left unsaid, and there are huge gaps in the chronology, but all that is essential is there. Like few other writers, Gardam is evocative and conveys substance in descriptions and dialogue that can seem almost spare but are never artificially or irritatingly elliptical. The result is a broad and colorful and complete tale, with a poignant heart.

by M.A. Orthofer

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