In my quest to find more books by Rumer Godden I found myself in a surprisingly well organised corner of the Book Room, a nicely alphabetised one. The Book Room is all a bit of an idiosyncratic muddle, compounded by years of adding sections on a whim. The year I decided to pull out and re-shelve all the books I had in translation, and sub-shelve under each language, was an interesting one, and though I know (more or less by a foot or so) where to find things, anyone else might struggle, and a librarian would doubtless have a conniption and demand I start over.
Anyway as my eye tracked to and fro along the 'G's I suddenly came across a run of books by Jane Gardam, quite a lot of them in fact and all added after I had read Old Filth some years ago. Realising I had discovered an author I liked but hadn't read, I started to find them hither and yonder. Funny how they were then everywhere I looked whereas before they had gone unnoticed, a name that wasn't on my radar. I had the same sort of experience with Elizabeth Taylor, who I had never heard of until I heard of her if you see what I mean, and then the books were everywhere I looked. Diving back into the basement on dovegreyreader scribbles I find that it was about a month after I started the blog back in 2006 that I gathered the Jane Gardams in.
I am on my third camera now, they get a little better each time so at least you can make out the titles.
So I settled on The Man in the Wooden Hat, published in 2010, and I see yet another novel published since, so clearly Jane Gardam an author still writing prolifically in her eighties and her books still seem to be in print. I love the world's-eye view that a writer in their eighties can offer...thinking back to that collection of short stories I read by Marjorie Watts, Are They Funny, Are They Dead. I really do think you can have a sort of carte blanche to say what you want and be done with it in your eighties, but also isn't a writer so perfectly placed to write about the foibles of ageing with credibility, and this is exactly what Jane Gardam has done.
If you have read Old Filth you will be familiar with Sir Edward Feathers, in his heyday an international lawyer of some repute in the Far East, except his nickname FILTH stood for Failed In London Try Hong Kong, and now I will have to read the book again because The Man in the Wooden Hat gives the back story to Sir Edward's life. His meeting and marriage to Elisabeth felt beautifully understated as I watched the emotionally buttoned-up Sir Edward woo the free-spirited girl who had been raised in the Japanese Internment Camps where both her parents had died.
Incidentally...is anyone watching the newest series of The Choir with Gareth Malone??
He is setting up four workplace choirs who will compete against each other in a competition. The first was made up of staff at an NHS hospital. Trying to persuade clinicians, who are well-versed at keeping their emotions well-boundaried and in check, to then release honest and palpable feeling as they sing, is proving to be quite a challenge. I suspect Gareth might need to let them rehearse away from their work setting to really achieve that.. and perhaps that's why I can let rip at choir practice on a Tuesday night, miles away from it all.
Sorry, back to Sir Edward Feathers, but I was reminded of him and this book as I watched for that reason.
His rivalry at the bar (the legal one not the drinking one) with the brash Veneering (wouldn't you just know it from that Dickensian name) are all revealed, though it transpires that the rivalry was not only at the bar, there is a magnetic attraction between Betty and Veneering to keep an eye on too.
As Jane Gardam proceeds to gently probe the deepest recesses of a melancholy marriage, its highs (very few) and lows (seemingly copious) the couples childlessness and the boredom of retirement, all the emotional damage that both Sir Edward and Betty have suffered as children makes itself apparent. Sir Edward pours himself into his work, Betty showers all her affection and toil on her garden, and yet I felt there was an unspoken love just below the surface, one that was only going to become fully apparent when one of them dies.
It all felt like an object lesson in the way that life can somehow 'happen' and be gone before you know it and there was a single moment that seemed to crystallise that for me as I read. Much later in life, and this recounted in much more depth in Old Filth as I recall, Sir Edward Feathers and his arch-rival Terry Veneering find themselves reluctant neighbours, eventually forced into a meeting when Sir Edward has locked himself out of his house on a snow-bound Christmas day...
'... Feathers, expecting Achilles, saw a little old man with a couple of strands of yellow-grey hair across his pate, bent over with arthritis. Veneering, expecting the glory of Agamemnon, saw a lanky skeleton that might just have been dripping from the sea full fathom five and those were certainly not pearls that were in his eyes.'
The two lonely old codgers play a wonderful game of cat and mouse, both desperate to retain any last vestiges of pride and domination that they can muster
This is a book full of all the things I would want in a really good read. Characters to watch and get to know, humour and sadness, wit and eccentricities and some submerged mysteries to keep me on my toes along with suprises and sneaky little revelations, often of huge import and conveyed in one line...those moments in a book that make you think ... but if that happened ...well that means... and so he did... and I wonder if she... and did they ever... and those revelations continue to the very last page.
There must be Jane Gardam fans galore out there and I have catching up to do. Could you please choose my next read from that pile??