The Hollow Land

Although a recent review of Jane Gardam’s  The Hollow Land promised a new Unknownpaperback version of her children’s book, I found the 1981 hardback in my library. I was rewarded with a picture of a young Gardam on the back cover – quite different from the recent pictures I’ve seen of the 86-year-old, but still familiar.

The pages are yellowed and spotted, but the stories are as wonderful as Meg Wolitzer promised in her New York Times review.

In 1981, Gardam had already been nominated for the Booker Prize, had written three novels, and four children’s books. The Hollow Land won the Whitbread prize and her Old Filth, the book that led to her rediscovery in America, was decades in the future.

The nine stories center around the friendship of two boys, Harry Bateman, a city dweller from London and Bell Teasdale, from the Cumbria hillside where the book gets it name. Harry’s family rents a summer house on the Teasdale farm.  From the beginning, the differences between the city and country cultures almost stop the action with a misunderstanding between the families.  But the mothers resolve the issue, and the beat goes on. Secret hideaways, scary tall-tales around the fire, and daily adventures connect the stories, yet the down-home flavor of the dialogue and the British colloquialisms can be daunting and sometimes interrupt the action.  But this is Jane Gardam, and for readers who stick with the stories, Gardam beautifully reveals the world through the eyes of a child,

Related Review: New York Times Review of The Hollow Land


Last Friends

One of the travel souvenirs I would have liked to have left behind – a debilitating headcold – had me seeking the comfort of hot broth and tea, and a new Jane Gardam book – “Last Friends.” Sometimes stuffed ears are a blessing.

If you are a fan of “Old Filth,”you will remember the three principals: Eddie Feathers, known as Old Filth – Failed in London, Try Hong Kong; Betty, his wife, the focus of the second book – “The Man With the Wooden Hat” – and Terry Veneering, Old Filth’s nemesis. Gardam opens with the funeral of Feathers, months after the service for Veneering. The locals fill in the background to remind you of the men’s rivalry in both law and love for Feathers’ wife, Betty – and the irony that brought them together in old age.

Gardam uses her last book in the trilogy to focus on Veneering’s young life, his escape from poverty, and the insidious influences that shaped him.
Veneering – named for a social climbing character in Dickens’ “Our Mutual Friend” – was born Terry Vanetski. His father was a Russian left behind by his circus troupe when he fell during a performance and injured his back.

Changed his name and went south. Something you could spell more easier…His mother worked the coal-cart round the streets. His dad were a Russian spy…”

Like Old Filth, Veneering manages to escape his roots.

Two minor characters reappear, Fiscal-Smith, now 90 years old, and as drudgy as ever, and Dulcie, the widow of Judge Willy Williams, who conducted Old Filth’s wedding to Betty, and who brought Veneering to Hong Kong. Gardam uses these two characters to move back and forth between the past and the present, with poignant and sometimes funny observations on old age. As they reminisce, they reveal more secrets about the three main characters and about themselves.

With her usual attention to details, her witty and vivid language, and her skillful weaving of soap opera intrigue with historical notes and personal drama, Gardam’s last book in the trilogy is pure pleasure…whether or not you have read the first two books. And her ending has a note of whimsical hope for old age.

“Fiction got us through…the two old trolls sat over their cards thinking occasionally of Tolstoy.”

Gardam is a treasure.

Review of Old Filth

Review of The Man in the Wooden Hat


Revisiting Jane Gardam – God on the Rocks

“Long celebrated in England, Jane Gardam gained legions of American fans with Old Filth and The Man in the Wooden Hat – her most recent critically acclaimed novels.  Now, newcomers and devotees alike can enjoy one of the honored earlier works in her considerable canon.

Originally published in Great Britain in 1973 and nominated for the Booker Prize, God on the Rocks describes Margaret Marsh’s coming of age one summer between the world wars.” …from the book flap of God on the Rocks

When one of my book clubs decided to revisit Gardam with a discussion of Old Filth, I sought out one of her earlier books – God on the Rocks.  Reading one of Gardam’s masterpieces has me yearning for the return of Downton Abbey.

Eight-year-old Margaret is not happy about the invasion of a new baby brother, and her Bible quoting father is not helping.  Lydia, the irreverent maid from Auckland offers some comic relief, but Margaret soon connects with a cast of characters, including a mad painter and her mother’s first love.  True to Gardam form, they are not who they seem.  Although the story is neatly tied up in the last chapter, you are left wanting more.

Gardam has so many phrases that set me laughing out loud, especially one that I will remember and reuse: like Margaret, often “I am beyond myself.”

My reviews of Old Filth  and  The Man in the Wooden Hat