The Man in the Wooden Hat, By Jane Gardam

In a follow-up to her Orange-shortlisted 'Old Filth', Jane Gardam probes life in colonial Hong Kong

Reviewed,Rachel Hore
Sunday 11 October 2009 00:00 BST

We first encountered Edward Feathers QC in Jane Gardam's Orange Prize-shortlisted novel Old Filth (Failed in London try Hong Kong). It showed how Feathers, an immaculate and courteous remnant of the English colonial classes, was traumatised by his experiences as a Raj orphan. Readers will remember how the redeeming event of his life was a whirlwind wedding to girlish Betty Macintosh – the start of a long and successful marriage. Now, in her darting, spirited voice, we hear Betty's side of the story.

The subtitle of this novel is "A Romance", but there is no happy ever after, nor an uncomplicated before. There's an ambivalence to Betty's commitment to the marriage that provides a palpable tension. Also orphaned – her parents died in a wartime prison camp – she's quickly drawn to Feathers; but while she loves him and he cleaves to her, her free spirit can't help responding hungrily to another. One hour after accepting Feathers' proposal, she meets at a party Terry Veneering, Feathers' brash professional rival and the object of his almost visceral dislike, a man already possessed of a wife and child, but whom Betty allows to relieve her of her virginity. From time to time during her marriage the embers of this illicit passion blaze up. Each time, the novel's eponymous éminence grise, Feathers' loyal Chinese colleague Albert, acts like a sinister prick of conscience, threatening Betty with dire consequences if she doesn't come to heel. His appearance is always a pleasingly executed novelist's trick, like one of the card games Albert plays.

There is no need to have read Old Filth to appreciate this new outing, but those who have will enjoy spotting hints of the earlier narrative and new perspectives on familiar events. Sometimes direct duplication is deliberate and effective, such as Betty burying in her garden the "guilty" pearls that Veneering gives her. A day later she suffers a seizure and falls dying, an event her husband is to recall repeatedly just as we are made to do. Read Old Filth once you've finished this novel, however, and you'll gain the fuller picture.

Understated is a word that is often applied to Gardam's writing. The intrusion of narrative commentary is rare in her books; the characters tell their own stories through flashes of thought and perfectly pitched dialogue, leaving the reader to muse on their interpretation. But this tendency is exacerbated here. There's a loosely daubed air as we gallop back and forth across the years, between Hong Kong, London and the deep Dorset countryside where the couple eventually retire. Whether this impressionistic approach is deliberate or necessary to avoid too much repetition matters not; it utterly captures the vibrant, impetuous essence of Betty: mulling over the ghosts of her colonial childhood, dashing off witty, observant letters from her honeymoon in Bengal, roaming the Kai Tak slums with her missionary school chum Amy, revamping her London home in fashionable black and white or, in later years, transforming her Dorset garden into a riot of colour. Her voice encapsulates a woman of her period and position. She bravely endures childlessness, keeps up appearances; yet she soars above convention, her tact and tolerance presaging a less suffocating modern age. The raising of individual yet believable characters such as Betty is surely what fiction is for. In carefully observed, jewelled prose, Gardam lets her paint this complex story of a world now faded and gone.

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