Some authors write as though their words have been squeezed out
of a tube then worked into shape with a palette knife. Jane Gardam's writing seems
spilled as effortlessly onto the page as a watercolor wash, deceptively
uncomplicated yet rich in detail, depth and drama. In this companion piece to
the compelling and defiantly funny
Old Filth, Gardam adds layers of nuance to the lives and
relationships of Edward, known as Eddie, and Elizabeth (Betty) Feathers.
While Old Filth is narrated primarily from Eddie's point of view, The
Man in the Wooden Hat focuses more on Elizabeth, and cannily asks whether
we can ever truly know anyone, even ourselves.
Old Filth (2006), which you don't have to have read to enjoy The Man in the Wooden Hat, takes its name from the derogatory acronymn FILTH - Failed In London Try Hong Kong, a reference to the many young and not so young Brits who, like Eddie, would find that their careers flourished after moving to Hong Kong (a British Crown Colony from 1841 to 1997). In Eddie's case he left London a struggling young barrister, and became a wealthy expatriate lawyer and then a distinguished judge. In Old Filth, Betty Feathers was something of an enigma. Viewed primarily through her husband's eyes, it was easy to assume that there wasn't much to know, although there were glimpses of something deeper, touched on so lightly that they could almost be overlooked. In The Man in the Wooden Hat Gardam rewinds the clock back to post World War II Hong Kong to retell the history of their fifty year marriage lived against the backdrop of Britain's declining empire, this time from Betty's perspective.
Narrative commentary is rare in Gardam's books. The characters tend to tell their stories through dialogue and private thoughts that flash back and forth through time. Betty's life reveals several occasions when the angle of light illuminating a particular moment changes, giving her a fresh perspective which results in a surprise twist. Like most people, she is not entirely focused on that moment. It brings to mind when my children were small and they would show me a scraped knee or elbow, unable to recall how it happened. Invariably I would stump them with the question: "Weren't you there when it happened?" Likewise Elizabeth was not entirely present at certain key episodes when her life and future might have turned out better, if given her full attention. Alas she is no more attentive than the rest of us. Thus when Eddie's archenemy, the dashing Terry Veneering, tells her he will send a car for her within twenty-four hours of her engagement to Feathers she numbly agrees or at least, doesn't disagree. It is, for her, the first of several instances when her fate turns on a fleeting distraction, a wisp of carelessness.
Despite evidence to the contrary, when Betty meets Eddie she is not a flighty or immature 28-year-old. Her union to Eddie is described as "a prudent marriage not for love" because she can think of no good reason not to marry him: "I have no aim. No certainty. I am a postwar invertebrate ... I have settled on exactly what my mother would have wanted: a rich, safe, good husband and a pleasant life." Betty survived internment as an enemy national in a Japanese internment camp in Hong Kong during the war, where she lost both parents. We know little of her pre-Eddie existence, except that, like Eddie, she is a "Raj orphan" who is set to inherit a fortune once she turns thirty and that she loves gardening. Her narrative suggests a woman of above average intelligence and intuitiveness. Except perhaps when it concerns herself.
One thing she makes perfectly clear is the degree of her sufferance of Edward's absences. Due to his job as a lawyer, Eddie travels frequently, leaving Elizabeth alone for long periods of time. However, even when he is present he is emotionally absent, taking little note of the things his wife values and making major life decisions without consulting her. It eventually becomes clear though that she does not suffer alone. She suffers differently perhaps and longer, but Edward grows into his own forbearances as well. Because despite Elizabeth's promise to never leave him, she does nevertheless close him out of parts of her life. And by the time she becomes acquainted with the eponymous man in the wooden hat he may mean more to all three of them (Eddie, Betty and Terry) than any of them would like to admit.
Betty's voice perfectly captures the period and her position as she keeps up appearances while pushing the bounds of convention. Her story illuminates a world faded but still clear in the memories of many still alive (Hong Kong was returned to the Chinese twelve years ago and, like Eddie and Elizabeth, the last generation of "Raj orphans" have reached retirement age).
Useful to Know
The fathers of so called 'Raj orphans' lived and worked in The Indian Subcontinent or other parts of South-East Asia, either as administrators or in the military. Oftentimes, the children were sent back to England for their education usually at boarding school, staying with foster parents or relatives during the holidays, and often not seeing their parents for years at a time.
Twice in Old Filth, similarities between Eddie's early life and that of Rudyard Kipling are mentioned, and in her acknowledgments Gardam cites her indebtedness to both Kiplings autobiography, Something of Myself, and his short story Baa Baa Black Sheep. Whereas Rudyard Kipling was born in Bombay in 1865 and sent to Britain to live with foster parents when he was six (with his sister who was three), Eddie was born in Malaya (his father worked in Singapore) many decades later in, one assumes, the 1920s.
Although The Man in the Wooden Hat is the second novel about Eddie and Elizabeth, Eddie stars in the title story of Gardam's short story collection, The People of Privilege Hill (2007), and also makes an earlier appearance in the title story to Missing the Midnight (1997).
This review is from the November 5, 2009 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.
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