“Lawyers, I suppose, were children once”

This is my review of Old Filth by Jane Gardam.

The misleading title "Old Filth" refers to the nickname derived from international lawyer Edward Feathers' joke on himself: "Failed In London Try Hong Kong". The book begins with him in old age knocked off course by the sudden death of his wife Betty. The chapters, each of which is often a short story in its own right, then shift back and forth in time from the death of Filth's mother giving birth to him in Malaya, leaving his father, still traumatised from the First World War, unable to give him any love. Imaginative, original, often very funny, the underlying sad theme of this story is how the "Raj orphans", shipped back to England "for their health" were often neglected, even abused, and left unable to form sound emotional relationships.

From the first page, you feel in the hands of a very skilful writer, confident in her ability to write on a theme which may at first seem unappealing. However, I was actively hooked from the point at which Filth discovers that his worst enemy in the legal world has come to live next door to him. Some of the humour arises from whole scenes, such as Filth's hair-raising drive across England to meet a cousin – more of an expedition for him than finding his "way round the back streets of Hong Kong and the New Territories". At other times it is more subtle, arising in dialogues and little asides. Gardam is adept at letting the true, often colourful or moving aspects of Filth's supposedly dull life slip out gradually, but you have to concentrate hard not to miss something. A dark undisclosed secret haunts the book with the anticipation of some final climactic revelation, from which the fact you can guess it long beforehand does not detract unduly.

To nitpick over mild criticisms, there is a slight inconsistency in the style in that some chapters are pure farce, and therefore entertaining rather than moving, whereas others are a seamless blend of comedy and poignancy. I found the "Albert Ross" character very unconvincing, and the details in the last part of the book seem rather rushed compared to the beginning.

Yet, overall, it is well-constructed, a bold attempt by a sensitive female writer to enter into the mindset of an emotionally repressed, highly logical but unimaginative man, resulting in an unusual and original read. I shall look out for more of Jane Gardam's work, starting with "The Man in the Wooden Hat" which tells the story of Betty's life. This sequel may also explain some of the gaps in "Old Filth".

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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