Old Filth

June 14, 2010

Keeping my wife in books is a perpetual problem. Most of the year she handles her book choices for herself, but when Christmas approaches in December, and is quickly followed by our anniversary (January), Valentine’s Day (February), and her birthday (March), lots of gifts are called for and I start making lists of books to buy.

Therefore, I rubbed my hands together when I heard that Jane Gardam‘s latest book, The Man in the Wooden Hat, was a worthy sequel to Old Filth. I had never heard of Ms. Gardam, or her books, and I was pretty sure that my wife hadn’t heard of her either. I ran to the store and bought both books. Two gifts in one bag.

My wife loved both books (delivered months apart, of course), but it wasn’t until mid-spring when I finally got to read Old Filth that I learned why. This was storytelling at its best. I can’t remember when I last read a book so quickly.

The story opens with Filth (“Failed in London, try Hong Kong”) at his club, an old man being observed and commented upon by other unnamed club members. From there we leap in time and space to his birth and ‘abandonment’ as a Raj orphan in southeast Asia. The two plot strands are cleverly worked together to provide one surprising revelation after another, and, of course, a satisfying resolution that even manages to surprise Filth himself. And this, perhaps, may be Filth’s most interesting feature: that he can be surprised. Most books about outcasts depict them as hypersensitive observers of the people around them, but Old Filth goes the other way. Filth’s intelligence and manifold accomplishments provide him with almost no insight into the people around him. Frankly, this felt more genuine.

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