This trilogy by Jane Gardam has to be read in sequence to be fully enjoyed, although the story itself is not told chronologically. It begins at the end; the last years in the life of Edward Feathers or ‘Filth’, its principal character. A bit off-putting that title; but Filth is a self-deprecating acronym Edward created to describe himself and stands for Failed In London Try Hong Kong. Each volume is page-turningly funny and mixes mystery with a little poignancy to keep it interesting.
Edward Feathers is a ‘Raj’ orphan though he never lived in India. The term, Raj orphan is used to describe the children of ex-pat British bureaucrats sent to Britain by well-meaning parents to receive a Western, boarding school education. From a modern perspective we do not think of the colonizer as a damaged victim of colonization but these children were more often billeted with strangers and grew up without the nurturing love of their families. They could not avoid being traumatized to some degree. In Edward’s case he was born in Malay and never knew his mother who died giving birth to him. His father was a British colonial functionary posted to a remote village. He was a veteran of WWI and suffered from post traumatic stress disorder and alcoholism. He handed over the care of his infant son to a Malay nanny. In his earliest years Edward was raised and lived happily as one of the village children. However, when he was four he was snatched out of his adoptive family’s care and sent to board with a mean, churlish couple in a remote part of Wales. It was only in later years at a boarding school run by a headmaster who viewed the world with the lively curiosity and enthusiasm of a boy scout that Edward found a kindness that could redeem his view of humanity. Edward goes on to pursue a career as a lawyer specializing in construction law and is eventually appointed to the bench in Hong Kong. The only hint of the early childhood abuse he suffered was a life long burden of a speech impediment he could not quite conquer.
Edward’s life and career are the subject of the first novel. The second, The Man in the Wooden Hat, is told from the point of view of Betty, Edward’s beautiful free-spirited wife. She too is a Raj orphan but arising from circumstances different from those of Edward. Her parents were missionaries in China and spent WWII in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. They died in the camp and Betty grew up in England in the care of her Uncle Willy and his wife Dorcas. She is introduced in the first novel on the day of her unexpected death. The great passion of her old age is her garden and thus while on her knees planting tulips outside her country home in Dorset, England she abandons Edward to widowhood. She looks up to see Edward standing in one of the windows pretending to shoot crows with his walking cane. She takes a set of pearls out of her pocket and deliberately buries them with the tulip bulbs and then her heart stops. The story of her lifelong love affaire, the two sets of pearls she received as gifts and the secret of why her marriage was childless when she longed to have a large family is skillfully pieced together throughout the second novel.
The third volume, Last Friends, reveals the background of Edward’s much despised chief opponent in law Terry Veneering. Terry grew up in an isolated English seaside village. His mother delivered coal for a living and his father, a circus performer from Odessa and maybe a Russian spy, was confined to his bed because of a back injury. A combination of intelligence, good luck and personal charm lifted Veneering out of his impoverished childhood and set him on a course leading to a brilliant career as a lawyer. Edward Feather’s was his arch rival in both law and love. The third volume also gathers in some loose threads of the stories that belong to secondary characters and brings everything to a reasonably tidy ending.
Secrets revealed and not revealed and the silences between words are the devices that make this trilogy an engrossing read. The reader catches glimpses of events that build and change lives and sometimes crash destructively though the principal characters remain resilient. At times a minor character takes on a more important role but fits into the pattern of the story logically so that the reader must acknowledge that it all makes sence in the overall telling.
There is a light heartedness behind this writing that occasionally pauses to pose a serious and unanswerable question. One such example is when Edward Feathers, the Judge in Hong Kong must justify to his own conscience condemning to death a man of Chinese origin who has been judged not by his own indigenous laws but by those of a colonial intruder. I think it is this deeper texturing of the novel; it’s subtle and sometimes not so subtle shading that secures it as an engaging read.