The other side of the story
The Man in the Wooden Hat, a compelling new novel from acclaimed British novelist Jane Gardam, marks the return of Sir Edward Feathers, the central character in Gardam’s prize-winning Old Filth. Feathers (nicknamed Filth, an acronym for Failed in London, Try Hong Kong), is a retired judge who returns to England with his wife Betty after a long and lucrative career as a barrister in Asia. In a rambling but highly charming manner, Old Filth followed Feathers from his birth in Malaya and unhappy fostering in Wales (one based on that most famous of colonial authors Rudyard Kipling) to a tranquil-seeming marriage and retirement in the peaceful English village Donhead St Ague.
The Man in the Wooden Hat tells Betty’s story and serves as a companion piece to Old Filth. Like Feathers, Betty was born in Asia, but instead of being sent as a child to be boarded and schooled in Great Britain, she remained with her parents even after their detention in a Japanese internment camp. After working as a code breaker at Bletchley Park during the war, she returned to Hong Kong and met Feathers. His intense need for companionship elicited a deeply-felt sympathy from her and they quickly entered into a marriage more of sense than sensibility. The one reckless action in her otherwise carefully controlled life is a fling with the aptly named Terry Veneering, Feathers’ nemesis. Though the affair is brief, the relationship never quite loses its spark, and Betty remains preoccupied by what her life might have been like had her decisions been different.
What makes The Man in the Wooden Hat so good is the way Gardam delves into the complexities lurking behind her character’s masks of studied conformity. Feathers’ hearty competence barely conceals an almost pathological fear of abandonment stemming from his complicated and violent childhood. From the outside, and perhaps even to Filth, Betty is a capable, conservative matron, a pillar of church and garden club, but readers get a glimpse of the clever and impetuous girl she once was and the warm, affectionate woman she still could be. All the passion that is missing from her marriage is poured into sporadic visits to Veneering and his son Harry for whom Betty quickly develops a range of convoluted feelings, sexual and maternal. She stands by the promises she made to Filth but at an enormous cost.
Gardam’s writing is both precise and vivid. Word by carefully chosen word, she creates intricate, multi-sensory pictures, not just of an Empire long gone, but also present-day England as seen through the somewhat baffled eyes of the elderly couple. The reader is utterly transported, hearing the cacophony of the Hong Kong harbor, smelling the dusty, shabby rooms of Filth’s first chambers in London’s Temple Bar, and feeling the rich soil crumbling beneath Betty’s fingers when she plants tulip bulbs in her British garden.
Telling the same story twice requires a facility that Gardam handles with ease, though even she cannot prevent a certain overall slightness to The Man in the Wooden Hat. The final plot revelations cannot help but direct the reader back to Old Filth points But you don’t need to be familiar with both to be moved by Betty’s life, by the decisions she makes, and the honorable way she conducts herself, even at the expense of her own happiness.