Old Filth

Jane Gardam

Abacus 2004
A book review by Danny Yee © 2011 http://dannyreviews.com/
Edward Feathers was a Raj orphan, sent from Malaya to England first to a foster-family and then a Public school. He became a successful barrister and then judge in Hong Kong, before returning to England; his nickname "Filth" is an acronym from "Failed in London try Hong Kong".

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.

March 2011

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%T Old Filth
%A Gardam, Jane
%I Abacus
%D 2004
%O paperback
%G ISBN-13 9780349118406
%P 260pp