Seattle Times: "Gardam is an exquisite storyteller, picking up threads, laying them down, returning to them and giving them new meaning [...] "Old Filth" is sad, funny, beautiful and haunting."
Date: Jul 10 2006
The title, first of all, is an acronym, and stands for "Failed in London, Try Hong Kong." Old Filth — or Dear Old Filth, when the story starts — is Sir Edward Feathers, a wealthy old Englishman.
As a penniless young man, Eddie Feathers left postwar London and made a magnificent fortune — "a great stack of money" — as a Hong Kong barrister, retiring as a judge and returning to England to live out his days.
In spite of his nickname, still-handsome Old Filth is always immaculate: impeccably dressed, with "the elegance of the 1920s," and a taste for yellow silk socks from Harrods.
As the novel begins, he is alone in the damp, chilly Dorset countryside, recently widowed and, for the first time in his orderly adult life, beginning to develop stress cracks in his stiff upper lip.
Author Jane Gardam masterfully peels away the layers that make up this man, moving backward and forward in time, in an irresistible novel that spans much of the 20th century.
Filth the old man is very much Eddie the boy, an "orphan of the Raj" whose mother died a few days after he was born in Malaysia. Essentially abandoned by his bureaucrat father to grow up in the care of a teenage Malay girl — the only mother he knows — young Teddy is unceremoniously yanked from her side and shipped off to a grim "foster family" in Wales when he is old enough to go to school. Forced to speak English rather than Malay, he develops a crippling stutter.
Eddie's life becomes a series of crushing losses from which he must somehow move forward. He is a foreigner everywhere he goes, never having any sense of home until he marries. But even then he carries inside him the dark, unexamined secrets of his young life, and when his wife Betty dies, the secrets no longer want to stay in their box.
Gardam is an exquisite storyteller, picking up threads, laying them down, returning to them and giving them new meaning. What seems a petty betrayal turns out to be the purest loyalty; old enemies become old friends; a stranger casually, inadvertently passes Eddie the worst possible news.
There are beautifully crafted surprises, and details of dress and behavior that are perfectly struck — Betty, a dumpy, tweedy, indispensable Scotswoman with her pearls, her perfect Mandarin, and her "Agatha Christie country clothes."
But what really anchors the book is the central presence of Eddie, quite alone, always a boy even inside his old man's carapace of success and money, navigating without a guide, taken by surprise at the great turning points of his life.
"Old Filth" is sad, funny, beautiful and haunting.
Reviewed by Mary Brennan