Jane Gardam is an author who I've been wanting to read for quite a while. I've heard many good things about her work, all more or less along the lines of the fact that she's a treasured British writer who's under appreciated in America. It didn't take many pages of Old Filth to realize that all of this praise was warranted and that Gardam does indeed write beautifully. Yet in spite of that, much of this book was a slow go for me. The story takes a circuitous route, weaving a meandering path through the life of Sir Edward Feathers, nicknamed "Old Filth", which stands for the acronym "Failed In London, Try Hong Kong". Feathers is a retired lawyer who made a name for himself as a judge in Hong Kong. He's well known and well respected throughout the legal community, but assumed to be just a staid old man by all of his professional acquaintances. They aren't privy to what we come to learn as we see scenes play out from various phases of Old Filth's life: his birth and early years in Asia, his time spent as a "Raj orphan" living with a foster family and at a boarding school in England, his coming-of-age during World War II, and his final years with his wife, to name just a few.
Gardam writes in such a way that Old Filth's memories of all of these times in his life merge with and flow into the mundane moments of his current condition as a lonely retiree in the English countryside. It's impressively well done, but, like I said, just didn't resonate with me for some reason. I actually think it may have had something to do with coming too close on the heels two other books about older men looking back on their lives, Ancient Light and The Sense of an Ending. Besides making me feel a little bit fatigued with reading about this type of character, Banville's and Barnes's novels got me used to the added layer in which the character doing the reminiscing is suspicious or doubtful of his own memories. This added a nice tension that I found lacking in Old Filth, in which Old Filth's memories are (for the most part) treated in a more straightforward way. It's the outsiders who are in the dark about the details of Filth's biography, not Filth himself.
The one element of tension that pervades the novel is a murky image of an incident that happened during Filth's time with his foster family. Vague details are alluded to, like an abusive foster mother and a tragic occurrence that resulted in Filth being removed from the home, but we're never told exactly what happened. It's as if Filth knows the facts but had suppressed them from the part of his memories that we become privy to throughout the story. It's only at the very end of the novel that the truth comes to light, both for readers and for Filth. When the details of this mysterious incident were finally revealed, it was somehow simultaneously exactly what I was expecting and not at all what I was expecting. The excitement of this revelation in the final thirty pages or so made up sit up and engage with the book in a way that I hadn't up until then. I can't say that it was enough to make me love the book as a whole, but it did leave me firmly convinced that I'll give more of Gardam's work a try in the future.