Jane Gardam – The Man in the Wooden Hat

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The Man in the Wooden Hat was shortlisted for the Orange prize.  It’s the third of Gardam’s trilogy about Filth, aka Eddie Feathers, a renowned judge and barrister from the last days of Empire.  The first of the trilogy is reviewed here:

Old Filth

This volume tells the story of the love triangle from the point of view of Betty, Filth’s wife, and one time lover of Veneering, whose viewpoint we see in Last Friends, which I have not yet read.  

The story here is pretty much the same as that in Old Filth.  We see Betty’s life, though briefly.  Gardam glosses over her time in a Japanese prison camp, her childhood, her youthful trip to Australia, and chooses instead to focus on the parts of Betty’s life that are shared with Feathers. We witness the night before Betty’s wedding, which she spends with Veneering in a Hong Kong hideaway, her relationship with and feelings for Veneering’s son Harry, and her later life in London, during and after a miscarriage.  In the last section, after Betty is dead, we return to Old Filth and his time alone in the Donheads, which we saw in the first book, whilst the opening section is mostly a catch up for those who missed the first novel.

Gardam writes as well as usual here, and is always worth reading, but this novel was shorter and more limited in scope than Old Filth.  It had none of that picaresque quality: I enjoyed the different parts of Feathers’ life journey – his travels and the depiction of the different phases and experiences he went through.  There was less of this in The Man in the Wooden Hat.  At first I thought this might be because as a male reader I found the female character intrinsically less interesting, but on reflection there was just so much less to read here, it was less eventful, less full.

Despite this there were some portraits that were striking, both amusing and thoughtful, especially Betty’s missionary friends in Hong Kong, her neighbours in London, and the portrayal of Veneering’s son Harry.

Will I read the other volume?  Maybe – as I said these books are well written, and if it turns up at my remaindered bookshop

Harlequin Books Totnes

where it will be priced at 4 for £10, I will no doubt pick up a copy.

The Guardian Review

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