The Asian Review of Books: "Gardam's latest novel is several minor miracles rolled into one."
Date: Mar 24 2010
Jane Gardam's latest novel THE MAN IN THE WOODEN HAT is several minor miracles rolled into one, not just its intimate blend of pathos, humour and humanity, nor the clipped language and ironic idiom that hearkens to an earlier literary age, nor even -- especially for readers in East Asia -- because it is an Asian-informed novel about the passing of Empire that is neither trite nor mawkish, but also because Gardam has managed to pull this off with the same characters and story that first appeared in the superb Old Filth.
THE MAN IN THE WOODEN HAT is a retelling of the story of Sir Eddie Feathers, QC, "Raj orphan" and pillar of the British legal establishment in the Far East, a.k.a. "Old Filth" (for "Failed in London, Try Hong Kong", a term applied generically to an entire class of expats that Gardam has somehow appropriated for the exclusive use of her protagonist) and his wife Betty, once Elisabeth Macintosh, born in Tsientsin, orphaned herself during a period of Japanese internment, a story told this time from Betty's point of view.
Anyone who has had any even indirect exposure to the upper echelons of pre-Handover colonial Hong Kong society will find much that rings true. A young, well-educated and obviously clever young woman with, however, few real prospects accepts a proposal from a up-and-coming lawyer whose idiosyncrasies she does her best to ignore.
One of these idiosyncrasies is a diminutive and peculiar Anglo-Chinese solicitor, described as a dwarf by the "lawyers at the English Bar", by the name of Albert Ross (or "Albatross"), who saved Feathers's career by coming to his aid with a fistful of Asian cases and to whom Feathers is in some ways more committed to than his wife.
THE MAN IN THE WOODEN HAT covers several decades, moving back and forth from Hong Kong, to London, and a reluctant West Country retirement, but is the story of a marriage, one that endures disappointment, professional and personal jealousies. Neither husband no wife, we find out, sooner with her than him, is quite what he or she appears to the other.
But THE MAN IN THE WOODEN HAT isn't distinguished so much by its plot which, a few twists and turns notwithstanding, is rather more straightforward than are most novels with a foot in Hong Kong, as by Gardam's extraordinary way with characters -- the less-than-entirely-socially-acceptable Terry Veneering (he with the Chinese wife and the source of much marital second-guessing), his Eurasian son Harry sent off to boarding school, the clutch of English missionaries beneath the flight path at Kai Tak and the inimitable Albert Ross complemented by an theatrical English couple of journeymen actors and an extremely (and unknowingly) dull barrister with the unfortunate surname of "Fiscal-Smith" -- and endlessly delightful language: at turns laconic, pointed, staccato and languid.
But long-term Western residents of Hong Kong may be particularly grateful for a novel that explains, with considerable understanding and compassion, how this place gets under one's skin -- how it is possible to live an entirely expat lifestyle while still somehow being, or becoming, a Hong Konger.
By Peter Gordon