The Man in the Wooden Hat, By Jane Gardam

Poignant portrait of a marriage

Reviewed,Michael Arditti
Wednesday 30 September 2009 00:00 BST

Jane Gardam has a remarkable ability to induce nostalgia, be it for expatriate Englishwomen offering mince pies and miniature Christmas puddings to uncomprehending hairdressers in pre-war Hong Kong, or supercilious nannies informing an unwitting trespasser that "this seat is only for titled families" in post-war Hyde Park. Gardam's delicate touch, gentle irony and broad compassion shine through this essentially slight tale about Edward Feathers, a wealthy barrister, and his wife, Elizabeth.

Both featured, along with Terry Veneering, Edward's adversary and Elizabeth's admirer, in Gardam's Orange-shortlisted novel, Old Filth, an acronym for "Failed In London Try Hong Kong". Edward and Elizabeth meet in Hong Kong, and Gardam beautifully evokes the post-war period when the English try to live as if in the heyday of Empire, to the amused indifference of the Chinese.

Edward and Elizabeth's marriage is not one of unbridled passion. He thinks of her as a "glass of water in a Scottish burn", while she can only say of him that "He's very, very nice... And he needs me." Only an hour after accepting Edward's proposal, Elizabeth meets Veneering and feels all the passion she lacks for Edward. Although she feels honour-bond not to desert the pathologically insecure Filth, she is forever haunted by what might have been.

Elizabeth's relationship with Veneering and his half-Chinese son, Harry, is a rare source of intensity in a life which, after an early miscarriage, is untroubled by deep emotion or perplexing incident. She dies while planting bulbs, before she can take the one reckless step of her adult life. Such is Gardam's skill that the narrative's many coincidences seem less authorial manipulation than the workings of a benign universe. Gardam's writing is like painting on glass: vivid and translucent. There may be little depth, but it scarcely matters when the surface has such charm.

Michael Arditti's 'The Enemy of the Good' is published by Arcadia

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