Wednesday December 9th, 2009

The Man in the Wooden Hat by Jane Gardam

wooden-hatJane Gardam, 81, has had a long and successful literary career, full of prizes, in the UK, but she only came to wide attention in the U.S. with the 2006 publication of Old Filth, a novel about Sir Edward Feathers, a retired British judge whose professional success took place in the Far East. (His nickname, Filth, is an acronym for “Failed in London Try Hong Kong.”) The Man in the Wooden Hat revisits Filth’s story from the perspective of his wife, Betty.

Olivia Laing, in the Guardian, calls the couple’s relationship “a marriage of sense rather than sensuality,” and says that one of Gardam’s greatest strengths is “creating for her characters facades of complete conventionality, which are then chipped away to reveal strange internal workings.” As with the previous novel, reviews on both sides of the Atlantic have been nearly unanimous raves, and more than one critic has compared the books to Evan S. Connell’s classic duo, Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge.

A note of something like dissent comes from The New Yorker, which concludes its brief review with this: “Like Gardam’s other novels, this work has satiric charm, but, just as the lovers never crack one another’s ‘unassailable privacy,’ Gardam never lets the reader meaningfully trespass on their inner lives.”

But most critics highly recommend reading both books, even if they have their favorites. At Barnes & Noble, Heller McAlpin writes, “Although both novels stand well on their own, Old Filth, with its exploration of Raj orphanhood, holds a slight edge when they’re compared. But they are richer still when read in concert. . . . [T]hese works are cleverly engineered to fit together and complement each other.” In the New York Times, Louisa Thomas says, “It’s not necessary to have read the prior book to enjoy this one. If anything, The Man in the Wooden Hat makes the fractured plot and chronology of Old Filth easier to understand.” Jonathan Yardley, in the Washington Post, refuses to choose:

As to Gardam’s pair of novels, what the old song says about love and marriage must be said about them: You can’t have one without the other. They are a set, his and hers. To my taste, they are absolutely wonderful, and I would find it impossible to choose one over the other. While Old Filth is principally about the man, his dark boyhood at the mercy of a distant, unfeeling father, with the wife a rather shadowy character in the background, The Man in the Wooden Hat fills in her side of the story, in the process revealing itself to be an astute, subtle depiction of marriage, with all its shared experiences and separate secrets.

The Man in the Wooden Hat by Jane Gardam
Europa Editions, 240 pp., $15.00