Old Filth by Jane Gardam is one of the best books I’ve read this year, and a pretty remarkable surprise given that it’s a book about an old sad white Englishman who isn’t particularly nice to his wife. The follow-up, The Man in a Wooden Hat, which focuses more on the wife was a pretty good book, but not nearly a good as the previous one. Betty Feathers just doesn’t come to life to the same degree as her husband Edward, and the book spends little time on her life beyond her relationships with her husband and her lover, Terence Veneering. But I was still interested enough in these characters to want more, so I read the final book in the trilogy, Last Friends.
This book focuses on three characters. The main point of interest is that we get some of the personal history of Veneering, the love of Betty’s life and Edward’s professional and personal rival (and, much to everyone’s surprise, companion and neighbor in old age). He was the son of a Russian acrobat and survived the war by a stroke of luck and instinct that kept him away from two deadly situations. His life has been full of lucky chances that put him in the right place to find patrons who saw his talent and helped him get an education that led to his successful career.
The other two characters are the “last friends” — those who remain after Betty, Edward, and Terrance are dead. Dulcie lives in the same town where the principal trio spent their final years. And Frederick Fiscal-Smith was a former colleague of Edward and Terrance. These two characters, who were in the Feathers’ wedding, meet again at Edward’s funeral. They weren’t close in the past, but they connect (a bit) in the present, I suppose as the last of a dying generation.
While Old Filth felt like a thorough examination of a life, this book feels like little more than a collection of fragments. Some of those fragments are revealing of the tenuous connections between people and difficulty of really understanding others. And it’s possible that Gardam is tying to get at something about how, when people die, even the stories about them amount to little more than wisps of the truth. No one left really knew Edward, certainly not as well as readers of the previous books do. As new people take over the Feathers and Veneering homes, we see that time marches on. Kind of a depressing thought.
The book, however, isn’t wholly dark. There are some funny moments, especially as Dulcie tries to be kind to Frederick, despite not liking him very much. But on the whole, this book really didn’t amount to much for me. Gardam’s writing is good, but the fragmentary quality of this book, especially in comparison with the depth of Old Filth, kept me from caring all that much about the characters. Too bad that a series that started off so strong fell off so much by the end.