Jane Gardam steals a little from Charles Dickens and more from Rudyard Kipling to flashback to the story of a young “Raj orphan” born in Malaya, who weathers a cruel foster home, a debilitating stammer, and the war, to finally become a stalwart of the British bar in Hong Kong before independence. The story begins with the death of Betty, his wife, the day after they both have missed an appointment to make out their wills.
Old Filth begins his reminiscing right after the funeral when he takes off on a road trip to revisit his past – from a young child in British held Malaya to a young man in wartime England and finally to post 9/11. As he reconnects with lovers and friends, he reviews his past and takes you on a ride through history, telling a story that is humorous and connected to the right opportunities.
Queen Mary stars in a segment that is historically accurate. Her son, George VI, sent his mother to live in the country for her safety during World War II. In Gardam’s version, Feathers is assigned to the military detail that protects the queen, and easily becomes her friend. Old Filth’s (Feathers) height and stammer remind the queen of her son, whose own stammer was recently made famous in the movie, “The King’s Speech.”
In the end, Gardham even solves a murder mystery that has been haunting Old Filth since his unfortunate childhood. Through it all, she delivers a character that you will cheer for, feel sorry for, and laugh with.
My favorite pieces are the old boys’ club conversations – the gentlemen smoking their cigars and drinking their whiskey, discussing Old Filth – especially when Old Filth himself in scrunched down in a huge wing chair, invisible to the gossipers.
I did not expect to enjoy this book as much as I did; I happened on it by accident. But now I will look for more by this author, who has twice won the Whitbread Prize for novel of the year, and has been short-listed for the Booker Prize.
Old Filth is a gem.