Old Filth

Eddie Feathers was born in Malaysia, grew up in Wales, was educated at Oxford, and found success as a lawyer in Hong Kong (thus earning the nickname Filth—for Failed In London Try Hong Kong) and later in England. Now, at age 80, he lives alone in Dorset with little family and few connections remaining.

This 2004 novel by Jane Gardam, the first in a trilogy, is a look back on a life that seemed doomed from the start. Avoiding a strictly chronological approach, Gardam carefully doles out bits of Eddie’s history, starting with his early happy years in Malaysia that came to an abrupt end when his father, a government official and widower, sent him “home” to Wales, where he barely knew the language (English or Welsh) and met with troubles whose complete nature don’t become clear until the end of the book.

Gardam dedicates this book to “Raj Orphans and their parents,” and I think the story could be read as an indictment of colonialism, not for its effect on the colonized (which is devastating enough) but on the colonizer. Eddie is born and raised in a country that is not his own, but he’s too young to know any better. And once he’s torn away from that country, he never manages to make a strong and lasting connection again. His most lasting connection is with his wife, and he mourns her when she dies, but it’s evident that they don’t have a particularly strong bond. She was in love with someone else, they had no children, they didn’t share a bed. Perhaps his strongest connection is with a friend he meets at school whose family semi-adopts him. But when illness and war come along, so does death, and their lack of any official ties cause the connection with the family to fizzle. His only family in England consists of two cousins, with whom he spent part of his childhood, but their shared history is so tainted by pain that they can’t easily spend time together.

As you can imagine, this is a sad book about someone who lived a sad life. Yet I enjoyed it. Part of this is the way Gardam parcels out information about Eddie’s history. It’s hard to put the book down when each chapter offers a new revelation that explains just a little more about how Eddie ended up the way he is. And, although I never quite came to love Eddie, I cared about him. He’s almost to bland to love—he’s sort of a person things happen to, who’s been steered into paths others set out for him.

The ending of the book is perhaps a little too tidy, with the final, darkest secret revealed and a final, significant choice made at just the right moment. But the final moments felt right.

I have a copy of the second book in the trilogy, The Man in the Wooden Hat, which I understand focuses more on Betty, Eddie’s wife. I hope to read it soon, and if it’s as good as this book was, I expect I’ll be looking for the final book, Last Friends.

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5 Responses to Old Filth

  1. Hello Teresa, I’m currently rereading this book in a Dutch translation. Part 2 and 3 are waiting. When I first read this book about 4 years ago I found the English very beautiful. One of the books in the most beautiful English I’ve ever read. The Dutch translation reads wonderful but is not as beautiful as the original. Greetings, Erik

  2. I love Jane Gardam’s writing though this trilogy was not my favorite. I agree, one of her strengths is how she slowly reveals information throughout the story. She’s really a master at that.

    • Teresa says:

      This is the first of her books that I’ve read (maybe the first I ever heard of). Which is your favorite?

      • I remember being stunned by The Queen of the Tambourine but need to reread to find out why. I also love her coming-of-age novels, A Long Way from Verona and Bilgewater. I guess I really like the ones that focus on women. But in general she can write about anything and I’m happy to read it.

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