Saturday, 7 April 2012

Old Filth by Jane Gardam

The title refers to an anachronism: 'Failed in London; try Hong Kong'. 'Old Filth is a nickname that the main character. Sir Edward Feathers, acquired during his distinguished career as a judge in the British outpost.

I didn't think I wanted to read a book about a 'rich as croesus' ex-colonial recently retired from Hong Kong to live in Dorset, but it was a local library reading group choice. By chapter two I was hooked, as the old man is stumbling around in the snow, having locked himself out of his remotely-located house and forced to seek help from a hated neighbour (why he hates him we are to learn).

Sympathy grows as he reminisces about his childhood in Malaya (as it was then) where his colonial administrator father leaves him in the care of local villagers when his mother dies shortly after giving birth. Aged five, he's separated from the only person with whom he's bonded - an older girl of his foster family - and sent on the long voyage to England. We learn this was the usual fate of thousands of so-called 'raj orphans' - traumatised by the separation and supported through prep and subsequent public schools by only by monthly cheques.

The narrative switches between the extremities of old age and scenes from a lifetime of interacting with a host of unusual characters, that encapsulate 'a whole period from the glory days of the British Empire, through the Seond World War to the present and beyond'. For me, it's the quality of the writing plus the exploration of a complex character and his relationships that makes the book such a compelling read.
Published in 2004, the book was shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 2005

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