I had high expectations of The Man in the Wooden Hat, having loved Jane Gardam’s earlier Old Filth. (It’s an acronym — Failed In London, Tried Hong kong — and a nick name.) In fact I loved not only the book, but the characters, Sir Edward Feathers, QC and his enigmatic wife Betty. They lingered with me. Old Filth is a novel about how an emotional cripple negotiates a long marriage, and about the multiple secrets life holds. The Man in the Wooden Hat simply turns the kaleidoscope a little bit. We knew, reading Old Filth, that Gardam wasn’t telling us everything. I doubt she has now: there’s probably a novel or two in the life of Harry Veneering (nod to Dickens, a good sign in my view), Filth’s lifelong enemy and Betty’s… sometime lover? The Man… places us primarily in Betty’s consciousness, so we understand her motivations in marrying Filth. They are largely honorable. Life is not simple.
It’s hard to write clearly about these books, in part because they are so complex. Their appeal is so complex. They are immensely charming and readable. They are colorful: Gardam is wonderful about the East and its grip on her two main characters. They are moving: Gardam seems to both understand and pardon every emotional impulse she allots to her characters. The two novels fit together like a jigsaw, or like Alan Ayckbourn’s The Norman Conquests. (Comparisons to Evan Connell’s Mr. Bridge and Mrs. Bridge have also been made.) I don’t know how, as an author, you keep track of it all: what happened, who felt what when, who knew what at which point? The mind reels.
Gardam has another Dickensian gift, the ability to give minor characters real life in just a few sentences. And she has his scope, in a way. She is not a young woman, and I have to believe that the final pages, in which Betty and Filth reach the indignities of old age, paint those predicaments clearly. And she writes with a kind of vivid economy: spends some time on description in a few situations — a house in Dorset, a museum in Delft — and lets just a few details carry the atmosphere for the rest of it. A green dress, an overgrown London garden, a rat. Just wonderful.