I’ll admit I’d never heard of Jane Gardam, despite the fact that her new novel is her 17th work of fiction, despite the fact that she’s won numerous awards in her native England, despite the fact that she’s as skilled and nimble a chronicler of class and manners in English life as Mansfield or Waugh. No matter, The Man in the Wooden Hat makes a splendid introduction. A companion to her 2006 novel Old Filth, this one tells the story of Sir Edward Feathers and wife Betty from Betty’s point of view (the previous novel was largely the husband’s story). The two meet and marry, precipitously, in 1950s Hong Kong. Edward is an up-and-coming barrister, nicknamed Filth (“Failed in London Try Hong Kong”) in need of a wife, and here’s what he knows of Betty: “a good sort. Very attractive.” Likewise, Betty, formerly a code-breaker at Bletchley Park, is only faintly acquainted with Edward. He proposes by letter, and he is successful, good-looking, a member of her class, and why not? She grew up an orphan in Japanese internment camps and has a flighty streak. Edward, also an Empire orphan, born in Malaysia, could be the solidity she needs. Her friend Amy counsels caution: “Don’t do it Bets. Don’t go for a forty-watt bulb because it looks pretty. You’ll get stuck with it when it goes out.” Such talk—brisk, witty, urbane—animates the novel, as does Gardam’s sure-handed and evocative descriptions of expatriate Hong Kong. Edward and Betty’s match isn’t exactly happy—nor is it tragic. In 230-odd fast-moving pages, Gardam gives us the whole life of a marriage, its rich contradictions, its consolations and heartbreak. Before you know it, Gardam has covered 40 years, and Betty and Edward are an aging couple in the English countryside, still harboring secrets from each other as well as nurturing a hard-won love. It’s a sophisticated, terrifically entertaining novel that is over much too soon, but good news for the uninitiated—there are 16 more where this one came from.
By Taylor Antrim