Brief Encounters

This is my review of The Man In The Wooden Hat (Old Filth Book 2) by Jane Gardam.

This second part of a trilogy revisits the quirky and poignant world of "Old Filth", misleading acronym of a nickname, "Failed in London Try Hong Kong" for Edward Feathers, the brilliant QC emotionally damaged by a motherless childhood and grief-stricken colonial administrator father. Not a sequel but a filler in of gaps, the focus here is on Edward's wife Betty whose suspected passion for his arch rival Veneering is now revealed.

It is Catch-22 in that you will miss a good deal by not reading "Old Filth" first – the clunky attempt to explain the main details of his early life in the opening pages is no substitute – but if you have read it, some of the "surprise factor" is inevitably lost since you will often know what to expect and recognise incidents repeated from the first novel.

Some of the chronology is a little odd if not slapdash. How could Betty manage to be in a Japanese POW camp, at Oxford and breaking codes at Bletchley Park in such a short space of time? Yet, perhaps this does not really matter. Gardam is less interested in plot, and more in creating a sense of a place or emotional feeling, together with an eye for the ridiculous and the odd hint of ghostly presences.

I felt as if I were reading extracts from a genteel soap opera, with the lure of escapism for the majority of readers who will not have experienced firsthand the main characters' privileged, bittersweet lives. Apart from Old Filth, most of them are too sketchily drawn to be truly moving. Least convincing for me is Loss, the Chinese dwarf, who in his resemblance to a carving of a man in a wooden hat gives his name to the second novel for no obvious reason to me, except his tendency to appear as a threatening presence at critical moments in Betty's life.

Although it is forgivable that Gardam seems to have fallen in love with this set of characters, and enjoys replaying their story from different angles as writers do, the extension of the process into a trilogy so far seems a little self-indulgent. From an artistic viewpoint, I wish she had stopped with "Old Filth" and left us guessing.

⭐⭐⭐ 3 Stars

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