Old Filth tells Feathers' life story in two interwoven strands. One goes back to just before his wife's death and covers the final years of his life, in which he takes off on new journeys, coming to terms with the complexities of his past and renewing some of his surviving relationships. This is a sensitive and convincing portrayal of old age, with Feathers facing a changed world with a mix of awkwardness and sprightly resilience.
The other strand tells the story of Feathers' childhood and youth: birth up a remote river in Malaya followed by the death of his mother, an abusive foster-family, intimacy with a close school friend's family, early sexual experiences, and wartime service guarding the Queen Mother. A revelation about a key childhood event is foreshadowed but still dramatic.
These strands are linked by memories, by people, and by places. The middle half of Feathers' life — most of his time in Hong Kong — is hardly touched on at all.
The central character portrait in Old Filth is complex, compelling and original, transcending the potential cliches or stereotypes. And Gardam's tone is sure, keeping the reader involved without overplaying nostalgia or other emotions, the elements of mystery and uncertainty, or the exotic aspects of the historical setting.
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