Saturday, June 22, 2013

"Last Friends," by Jane Gardam

I was thrilled when I saw that the third novel in Jane Gardam’s “Old Filth” trilogy had been published. The first two volumes were “Old Filth” and “The Man in the Wooden Hat,” and the new novel is “Last Friends” (Europa Editions, 2013). Together they tell the story of British characters of a particular type: expatriates in Asia, yet loyal English citizens. They are Edward Feathers, his wife Betty, and Terence Veneering, who was Feathers’ rival and Betty’s lover. Each book focuses on one of the characters, but is complete in and of itself. However, reading all three allows one to see the events and relationships from different angles. These three characters, along with their colleagues and friends, lived a colonial life in what was known then as the Far East, and then retired back to England. Their lives are tangled with each other’s, and they are part of the Old Guard of post World War II, although they seem rooted in an even earlier, more colonial time period. The first novel focused on Feathers, and the second one on Betty. This latest novel, “Last Friends,” focuses on Veneering, who has retired near where Feathers retired. The second novel revealed that long after Betty’s death, these two rivals reconciled and became friends. But then Feathers died. This third novel brings in other characters who had known each other in the East but now live near each other, or visit each other, in England, including Fiscal-Smith and Dulcie. All are now elderly, and sometimes a bit forgetful, but still remember the old days and keep their old (mixed) feelings about each other. A few new younger characters are introduced as well. But none of my description can capture the wonders of Gardam’s writing; she is quite simply a genius in the strength and depth of her writing, and in the way she captures this particular world and the nuances of the characteristics of each person, and the relationships among them. Her writing is evocative but never sentimental; it is descriptive without going overboard; she involves readers without pandering to them. For me there is a special connection because of my life as the child of missionaries in India, so there are resonances there. But this novel would appeal to anyone who admires and savors masterful writing. Kudos too to Europa for the beautifully produced paperback version, with its eye-catching cover. Highly recommended. (But consider reading the other two novels first….)

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