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The Globe and Mail: "If you have not yet found [Gardam], I urge you to do so immediately ”

Date: Dec 18 2009

Who knows what goes on inside a marriage. Perhaps not even the couple involved. I take that back. Jane Gardam knows and her wonderful new novel (but then, they all are), The Man in the Wooden Hat, could have as easily been called Scenes from a Marriage.

The marriage is that of Sir Edward Feathers, the titular Old Filth of Gardam's superb novel of that name, and Elizabeth, or Betty. That she is dead as the novel begins is, however, no impediment to the exploration of courtship and marriage that unfolds here, gracefully, wittily, profoundly. No impediment at all; Where Old Filth was Edward Feathers's story, this novel is decidedly Betty's.

Deceptively simple, even clipped, sentences accrete to mysteriously complex effect as Gardam guides her somewhat mismatched couple through a crisply developed life together (and sometimes apart; Filth, a distinguished jurist – his nickname stands for “Failed in London, try Hong Kong” – is forever fearful that she will leave him). It is, again deceptively, light as a feather and, while having no aspiration to, or interest in, apparent explorations of the full nuances of character, especially in its self-contemplation, she miraculously achieves that effect.

Even as we're immersed in the present moment, there's an unsentimental nostalgia at play, knowing the outcome as we do, knowing it from Old Filth to begin with. What we get is a lifetime commitment that begins in infidelity (I suppose one must call it that) and uncertainty, morphs quickly into love and then a worried companionability, always under the inevitable shadow of Filth's hated rival in law and love, Terry Veneering. (A scene in which Filth and Veneering meet as neighbours is a masterpiece of comic understatement.)

Gardam is, as always, highly attuned to the accidental nature of things, such as Betty's own meeting with Veneering, to whom she is instantly sexually drawn, far more than to the man to whom she's just committed. Characters happen upon one another in unlikely but believable circumstances, weave unpredictably in and out of lives. Contingency rules; things go one way, true, but they might so easily have gone another.

Ultimately, despite its wry humour, despite its forgiving delight in human infelicity, its sense of the absurd, its nuanced understanding of just how very difficult it is to arrange things well between human beings, this is, almost surprisingly, a very moving book. It's the portrait of a marriage that, against the odds, against temptation, against the contrasting characters of its pairing, against the great disappointment of childlessness, against time itself, against the greater attractions of another, somehow survives, perhaps even prevails.

One of the great pleasures of my job involves the chance to ruminate over assigning reviews (not always, I hasten to add, to the satisfaction of all). Occasionally there are even great coups: A.S. Byatt reviewing Alice Munro, Annie Proulx on Guy Vanderhaeghe, Oliver Sacks reviewing a biography of Glenn Gould. But once in a great while, there is a writer to whom I arrogate that pleasure myself. When it comes to Jane Gardam, I am not, as Shakespeare's Richard III tells an importuning Buckingham, in the giving vein today.

As I've written previously, I've come to Gardam rather late, but coming to her at all has become one of life's great pleasures. If you have not yet found her, I urge you to do so immediately. Perhaps, though, it would be wisest to read Old Filth before embarking on the almost equally wonderful The Man with the Wooden Hat.

I know of no fictional enterprise quite like this one. A masterful novel, followed by a collection of stories (The People on Privilege Hill), one of which illuminates both the novel that preceded it and the one that follows, The Man in the Wooden Hat (the title reference I'll allow you to discover for yourselves, as well as the chorus-like figure of Filth's card-throwing Chinese dwarf friend, Albert Ross).

For its wit, its compassion, its tragicomic view of life, its deep staccato probings of human action, Jane Gardam's Filth series will rank as one of the great literary achievements of recent years.

By Martin Levin

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