If you’re a fan of Jane Gardam’s brilliant Old Filth, you’ll need no further urging to read Last Friends, the final novel in a trilogy (the second being The Man in the Wooden Hat) concerning Sir Edward Feathers, Sir Terence Veneering, and Betty, the woman they both loved. As a completing gesture, Last Friends satisfies, but I doubt it would work on its own. Gardam’s story-telling is elliptical, swooping and looping through time in a way that can be simultaneously confusing and enlightening. The three novels would probably be best read together.
But I wonder if the relative weakness of Last Friends — and it is relative: by any standard Gardam is a wonderful novelist — doesn’t reflect the fact that Eddie Feathers, the “Filth” of the first novel, is the most interesting of the three main characters. Interesting because he’s opaque, and because there are depths beneath his polished surface that Gardam exposes for us readers, though his nearest and dearest don’t guess at them. Last Friends focuses on Terry Veneering, Filth’s lifelong adversary, and here we learn Veneering’s secrets. But they’re a little bit more predictable, as is his character. And, call me greedy, but I wanted more from Gardam: more detail? More episodes? Last Friends is economical, a virtue I don’t especially cherish in fiction.
I was lucky enough to hear Jane Gardam read recently on her U.S. publicity swing, and she was charming (she has a beautiful low speaking voice). She said that overall, Last Friends is about those people you’ve known all your life, the ones who were at your wedding, who asked you to be godparent to their child, who call you up for lunch just when you’re busiest and you think “oh, not her again….” But you maintain the friendship, even passively, and one day, there you are, the only ones left with the same memories. In this case, after the deaths of Feathers and Veneering, we’re left with Edward Fiscal-Smith, always a hanger-on, the man everyone forgets was in the room. As one character describes him, “He has no charm and he knows it. Can’t connect. Can’t hear people thinking. Can’t help being what he is. He knows that nobody ever liked him.”
I’ve always had a soft spot for that character, whose inner life I assume to be full of richness, but by way of inner life, Gardam give Fiscal-Smith only …. toy trains. Trains? Why? It feels as if maybe a chunk of back-story was removed here and Gardam is too subtle for the easy “missed connections” interpretation. This is the kind of under-writing that makes Last Friends a faintly melancholy and anti-climactic form of closure.