Jane Gardam, The Man in the Wooden Hat. Abacus, 2018. First published 2009
This is a sequel to Jane Gardam’s Old Filth, about which I posted a couple of years ago (link HERE). The Man in the Wooden Hat tells much the same poignant story, but from a different perspective.
OF was largely an account of the life of Sir Edward Feathers, an undistinguished jobbing London lawyer who moved to Hong Kong and revived his career. He went on to become a respected judge back in England. We learnt about his damaged childhood, and the knocks he endured and which shaped him into the fragile, emotionally scarred man he became.
Wooden Hat gives the story from his wife Betty’s point of view. We don’t get so much information about her childhood, but the formative experiences of her life were her exhilarating war work at Bletchley Park during WWII – she was clearly a brilliant mind, contributing to the breaking of enemy codes – and subsequent horrors in a Japanese prison camp. Like Edward, she’d been a ‘Raj child’ – raised in the far east and shipped home for exiled schooling away from her family.
Both characters then are emotionally unsuited for the rigours of enduring married intimacy. There are fissures in the relationship from the start: Edward’s proposal, their honeymoon, early years of marriage – all lack the spark of romance. There is love, but it’s of a frail and unfulfilling kind. As they grow old together they become accustomed to life of quiet acceptance, creating a genuine bond, but with something missing at the heart of the relationship. Probably because of their respective damaged emotional states, and the problems that fate provides for them.
The awful cad Veneering reappears, too. He’s Edward’s professional (and romantic) rival. There’s a crucially symbolic gift of ‘guilty pearls’ that functions like Chekhov’s gun, with a heartbreaking twist at the novel’s end.
Edward and Betty’s whole adult life is sketched in with unobtrusive compassion and understanding: their mis-steps, regrets and fleeting moments of insight into what might have been.
As in OF, the narrative is carefully crafted. The emphasis is on character and what makes a person feel and suffer. There’s more on the odious colonialism and casual sexism and racism of the times; Jane Gardam presents this unflinchingly but without tub-thumping.
The narrative voice is again poised and assured. This is a writer with whom you feel in safe, caring hands.