Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Review: THE MAN IN THE WOODEN HAT & LAST FRIENDS, both by Jane Gardam

The Man in the Wooden Hat, by Jane Gardam. Published 2009 by Europa Editions. Literary Fiction.

Last Friends, by Jane Gardam. Published 2013 by Europa Editions. Literary Fiction.

The Man in the Wooden Hat and Last Friends are companion books to Gardam's Old Filth, a celebrated and popular novel about Edward Feathers, QC, a British lawyer born in Malaysia at the start of the 20th century, whose life spans that century and by all accounts, has been a pretty good success. He's had a great career in law, a happy marriage, and all appears to be well. But Feathers is a man who doesn't quite know how to love, and thus there are problems that nearly escape the eye, both with his marriage and his few friendships. Central to his life are his wife Betty and his rival (and her lover) Terry Veneering. Each novel, which together comprise one story, tells the story of these lives from the perspective of each character in turn.

Book two, The Man with the Wooden Hat, is Betty's. We see her as a young woman just as she's about to marry Edward, and we see the beginning of her relationship with Veneering and we see how her life stretches out into different kinds of disappointments, finally ending in a kind of reconciliation and acceptance of what she's made of it. I love the way this book rounded out her character and shared her secrets. Particularly touching is her relationship with Veneering's son, Henry. In Last Friends, we get Veneering's story, as well of that of a heretofore minor character called Frederick Fiscal-Smith. Veneering is a lonely man;  the son of a scrappy and passionate young woman and a shady Russian she meets in a circus, Veneering is constantly trying to reinvent himself and find his place in the world. His love for Betty is the one constant in his life but of course she is already married. His family life is a failure but his career is a success, and in the end he consoles himself with the friendship of the one man he never expected to provide that- Edward Feathers. Their friendship is one of the mysteries of life, and one worth exploring.

I really loved all three of these books. I think they should be read together, as one narrative, starting with either Old Filth or Wooden Hat and finishing with Last Friends. It's elegaic and a testament to a lost world, albeit one many do not miss. Last Friends also sees the comic character of Fiscal-Smith transformed and fleshed out, something I did not expect but enjoyed. Jane Gardam is one of those writers who just sneaks up on you. It's been a few years since I read her and I almost forgot just how good she really is. The books have all been popular book club choices and I hope her fans come in for this one, because it's really superb and offers a lot of insights into the characters that she seems to have been saving for this volume. She shows so much empathy for these wounded and vulnerable characters, and she ends the last book on such a sweet note of compassion and hope, as though the story doesn't have to be over, at least not quite yet.

These are my 7th and 8th books for the 2013 Europa Challenge. I finished them in May.

Rating: BUY for both

FTC Disclosure: I received The Man in the Wooden Hat for review from Europa Editions; I purchased Last Friends.


Sandy Nawrot said...

OK, I must dig out Old Filth from my shelves...

JoAnn said...

I bought a copy of Old Filth a few weeks ago at a used book sale and look forward to reading Gardam soon!

bermudaonion said...

You always make me want to read Europa books.

Aarti said...

I have heard of Old Filth and have it on my wish list but did not know that there were companion novels! I love that each character gets a focus. Sounds wonderful.