The ‘Old Filth’ Trilogy

Image courtesy of http://amazon.co.uk

I wish I could remember who it was recommended Jane Gardam. I think I read about it in one of my many newsletters about books. Whoever it was – bravo! I discovered a new author – always great – and a superb one at that.

The Old Filth trilogy is about a barrister named Sir Edward Feathers. He has an extremely difficult childhood which includes being sent to a foster home where he has all sorts of mishaps and adventures and this provides the reader with an understanding of his future motivations and behaviours. Despite a difficult start in life he goes on to train in the law and is incredibly successful in his profession.

Sir Edward Feathers was a ‘Raj Orphan.’ His father worked in Singapore and he was sent away. He always believed he would be reunited with his father and this separation affects his life deeply.

The book is narrated in the 3rd person and begins when Edward is retired and living in Dorset with his wife Betty. She and another character called Edward Veneering are the other two main characters in the book and they are the focus of books two and three. The story then jumps back and forwards in time but this is done seamlessly.

The prose is rich and detailed as we follow Edward from childhood to London and then Hong Kong which is where he gets his nickname ‘Old Filth. Filth is an acronym that stands for ‘Failed in London try Hong Kong.’

Jane Gardam has won numerous literary awards and I can fully understand why. This novel is so rich in evocative gorgeous geographical detail of all the various countries Sir Edward Feathers travels to or lives in. The dialogue is witty and sharp and the novel is full of wit and compassion while describing some of the darkest days of colonial and post-colonial Britain and the Far East.

I was immediately drawn into the story and the characters.

I highly recommend this trilogy. I look forward to reading more Jane Gardam. If you have read any of her books I would love to know which ones you enjoyed. Thanks!

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Review of Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason

I read this book after hearing several people on social media raving about it, such as Elizabeth Day, whose recommendations I usually love.

For the first time after reading a book, I genuinely couldn’t decide whether I loved it or hated it.

Reading the reviews on Amazon, it’s clear that one of the bugbears of many readers is the author doesn’t identify the mental illness that the main protagonist Martha suffers from.  This jarred with me, and I felt when it was revealed – or not as the case was – it broke up the flow of the narrative.

It is left open for us to decide which I agree is a bit of a cop-out.   However, I do understand the author’s reasons for doing so.  It gave her free rein to do what she wanted with the character’s illness.  Make of that what you will.

The novel centres around Martha who is the narrator.  She is married to the very long-suffering Patrick.  She has a close relationship with her sister Ingrid who bounces from one pregnancy to the next. 

How Martha feels about her sister’s ability to fall pregnant so effortlessly, is a bit of a mystery and the answer unfolds gradually throughout the novel.

The parts of the novel I felt that were courageously dealt with and beautifully written were Martha’s relationships with her sister, her husband Patrick, and the dramatic relationship she has with her mother Celia.   

The complexity of family relationships is portrayed in all its rawness but the use of humour lightens the darkness when most needed. There are some exquisite moments between Martha and Ingrid and Martha and her mother, particularly towards the end.

The last third of the book was where it picked up for me.  Up until then, I wasn’t hooked, so if you stick with it, it does get better as it goes along.

Whether you like this novel or not, I feel will come down to your feelings about how the author dealt with Martha’s illness. It may be the one weakness in the novel that readers just can’t get past. I found it frustrating, but ultimately it didn’t ruin the novel for me.

There are some brilliant one-liners throughout and I did find myself laughing out loud several times. 

Meg Mason is acerbic, doesn’t shy away from the dark side of life and uses humour to great effect.

I think this is a novel that needs to be read on holiday, so you can fully absorb yourself in it.  I think I missed out perhaps on how good it is by reading it over a few weeks. 

I may give it another go.   But I would absolutely love to hear what you thought.  Did you enjoy it?

Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan

Exciting Times: Longlisted for the Women's Prize for Fiction 2021 by [Naoise Dolan]

When reading a novel, I don’t have to like the main character, but it helps if they have a few redeeming qualities.  For me, Ava doesn’t.

I feel this novel is too clever for its own good.  There are many witty lines throughout, and the use of language is razor-sharp, but it’s all just a bit too pretentious for my liking.

You don’t have to be 22 anymore to remember what it was like.  I thought I would identify with the main protagonist somewhat as I too had been a TEFL teacher and had also worked abroad (not teaching TEFL.)  However, nothing could be further from the truth.

Ava is self-centered, totally lacking in real self-awareness – although from her stream of consciousness ramblings you would think she was as enlightened as the Buddha himself – and totally lacking in empathy or compassion for anyone.   She is also incredibly pretentious.

Ava is in Hong Kong working as a TEFL teacher when she meets a wealthy banker named Julian.  After a few dates, Ava moves in with him.  There appears to be no genuine feeling on either side.  Julian seems perfectly contented to let Ava stay in his apartment rent-free for as long as she wants.   I never understood why.   He could have had the sex without the added complications.

Ava then meets a wealthy Hong Kong Lawyer named Edith, and as their friendship develops you do at least see a modicum of genuine self-reflection on the part of Ava, as she realizes her feelings for Edith are a lot more complicated than she realised. 

I felt the sense of place in the novel was weak.  I didn’t feel the atmosphere of Hong Kong.  Streets and restaurants were named but could have been anywhere.

There were some incredibly witty lines throughout the novel, and I did find myself laughing out loud several times. 

Naoise Dolan, like her contemporary Sally Rooney, studied English at Trinity.  She clearly has an excellent grasp of the English language and uses it to superb effect.  What I feel she lacks is maturity with regard to portraying the complexity of real emotions.   In short, she needs to grow up, and I think as a writer she may produce some incredible work when she does.

Review of Jane’s Away by Clare Hawken

In the interests of transparency, Clare is a friend of mine and was my next-door neighbour when we lived in Zambia. I have known her since we were both kids!  

When I first met Clare she always – and I mean always – had her head in a book.  She was constantly reading, and I was fascinated by this, because I thought I read a lot until I met her!

I then discovered through her letters to me at boarding school – (yes, we both went to boarding school and yes, we did write to each other – no email in those days!) that she was quite the talented writer.  Her letters were always witty, eloquent, and never ever boring.

I am thrilled to see her first book on Amazon, and I couldn’t wait to read it.  I am always honest in my reviews whether the person is a friend or not, but I think if I had truly hated the book, I wouldn’t have reviewed it! These are the joys of having your own blog – you can do what you like!

Fortunately, I am delighted to say that I am far from hating it.   

The narrative is written in the third person, as we are introduced to Roger Kurmudge on his retirement day. It is evident from the start that Roger is interested in one person – himself. He is vaguely aware of others including his wife Jane, in so far as she is there like a comfortable pair of shoes that you don’t realize how much you love until you lose them.

Jane heads off to the hospital to have a day procedure – a mole removed.  Roger duly turns up after his retirement bash to pick her up and discovers that not only is she not at the hospital, but she is not at home, and he has no idea where she has gone.

This is the beginning of Roger’s awakening.  The novel sets out to show what happens when you have taken someone for granted your whole married life and suddenly, they are not there. The realization dawns on Roger that Jane looked after everything, and not only did she do it without complaint, but she loved him even though he didn’t deserve it.   He also discovers that she has a life of which he was totally unaware.  Quite the rude awakening!

The reader is left guessing as to where Jane has gone, why and will she ever return – all questions that Roger asks himself every day as his despair increases.

For me it is the characterization that makes this novel so strong.  Roger’s grandson Alfie is a wonderful character and adds much laughter and poignancy to the book.  He is immediately endearing by dint of calling his grandfather ‘Woger’ and making a beeline for the café whenever they go out – boy after my own heart! Alfie is the catalyst for much of Roger’s transformation and growth.

This heart-warming tale covers a lot of issues such as loneliness, parental angst, grief, and betrayal, but does so wrapped up in humour and a narrative that’s as comforting as a hot chocolate on a winter’s day.

For me, the test of a good novel is whether I care enough about the characters to want to know what happens to them after the story is over. ‘ Jane’s Away’ passed this test with aplomb and I am delighted there will be more to come from the Kurmudge family.

Highly recommend!