Failed in London, Try Hong Kong

Old Filth Cover

I am writing to convince book groups everywhere that your group should try Jane Gardam’s oddly titled novel, Old FilthDo not let your group members be deterred by the strange-sounding title or the rather stately Europa Editions (wonderful publisher, by the way) cover.  (I rather prefer the current UK cover, myself–see below).  Old Filth is a funny and heartbreaking book by a writer in her prime.

Old FilthOld Filth tells the story of Sir Edward Feathers, a distinguished lawyer now in his 70’s, who coined the phrase “Failed in London, Try Hong Kong” which is where he received his own moniker.  Old Filth was a child of the Raj, part of a generation of expatriate children who were more or less orphans, sent back to their homeland to be educated, abandoned to relatives or foster parents and boarding schools.  Born in colonial Malaya, his mother died in childbirth and his distant father left him to be raised by natives and then shipped him off to a foster home in England at the age of four and a half.

This eminent Hong Kong lawyer and judge retires with his wife, Betty, to Dorset, where they expect to live out their days in rural isolation.  But when Betty dies, Old Filth finds himself adrift and memories of his childhood rise to the surface.  This cold, buttoned-up man begins acting oddly, and what comes of his adventures and his reliving of his past will delight and surprise.

What Jane Gardam achieves in this novel is a complex character and a story that will unwittingly captivate readers to the end.  I love what this Guardian reviewer had to say:

“Are you interested in venerable lawyers, the relic of empire? You will be. Do you want to know about the Far Eastern Bar? A reader of Old Filth, despite its unpromising title, will become passionately curious about such matters. This novel is surely Gardam’s masterpiece. On the human level, it is one of the most moving fictions I have read for years.”

What makes Gardam’s book a good book for discussion is how many aspects of this man that are left to the imagination.  Her prose is tight and economical yet so evocative.  My father-in-law, originally from London, just read it on my recommendation, and he said that for once he did not want the book to end; he wanted to know more, wanted the book to be longer (and this from a reader who mainly devours police procedurals, and this book is definitely not that).  Gardam is the kind of writer who leaves you wanting more, and that, in this case, is a very good thing.

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About the Author:

Misha Stone is a readers' advisory librarian with The Seattle Public Library. Follow her on Twitter at @ahsimlibrarian.

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