In her novel "Old Filth," Jane Gardam introduced us to Edward Feathers, a "Raj orphan," a British child born in the colonies and educated in England.
Edward spent his early childhood in Malaya, then was shipped off to a miserable existence in English boarding schools and later evacuated back to Asia during the war. Servants were his family and his only friend was a bizarre Chinese dwarf named Albert Ross, sometimes facetiously called "Albertross," who "preferred to be known as a Hakkar, the ancient red-brown tribe of Oriental Gypsies" and who always wore "a size 10 brown trilby hat."
Edward went to Oxford, became a barrister — barristers in the British system are hired by solicitors to represent clients in court — and earned his nickname, Old Filth, an acronym for Failed in London Try Hong Kong.
The Edward we meet in "The Man in the Wooden Hat" is anything but filthy: an outstanding pillar of the legal community in England and in colonial Hong Kong, he is tall, handsome, fastidious and "always looked as if he'd stepped out of a five-star hotel shower, … immaculate in body and soul. Well, almost." He was also successful, thanks to Albert Ross, who served as Eddie's solicitor and directed him into lucrative postwar bomb damage claims and then into general building disputes around the world.
Miss Gardam opens her delicious new novel as Edward, en route from London to Hong Kong, proposes via letter (written on office stationery) to a young (28-year-old) somewhat free-wheeling English girl. Elisabeth Macintosh, called Betty, was born in Tiensin and lost her parents in a Japanese internment camp in Shanghai during World War II. She worked for some time as a civil servant in Britain's secret service. Now she's on holiday in Hong Kong. Edward describes her as "very lively. Infectiously happy. Very bright eyes. Strong. Rather — muscular." "Elisabeth," he said, "makes me think of a kingfisher. She glitters and shines. Or a glass of water."
Elisabeth was happiest in Asia. Similarly, Edward's "competence and his happiness were at their greatest in Far Eastern sunlight and the crash and rattle of monsoon rain, the suck and grind and roar of hot seas on white shores."
"The Man in the Wooden Hat" is a joy to read. Jane Gardam writes an elegant, witty prose; her narrative is peppered with ironic asides. The story unfolds, then re-folds, evolving into an unexpected conclusion. There are moments of magic that take your breath away, only to be replaced by cynical realism.
While "Old Filth" was Edward's tale, the new novel tells the same story viewed through Elisabeth's eyes. It is a story of secrets, some not revealed until the very end of the novel; of passion renounced and loyalty not always rewarded; of marital ties and unraveling. Characters are drawn, sometimes only sketched, with satirical finesse.
Places are vividly described: Donhead, the village where Eddie and Elisabeth spend their senior years is "secluded, deep in miles of luxuriant woodland, its lanes thick with flowers … too narrow for the modern-day agricultural machinery that thunders through more open country."
By Corinna Lothar