Sir Edward Feathers has retired to Dorset from being a Judge (nicknamed Old Filth) in Hong Kong. After his wife, Betty, dies, a new next-door neighbour arrives, another Hong Kong lawyer and the man Sir Edward detests most in the world.
This is the preliminary and it lasts 19 pages and I was drifting through it but I wasn't particularly interested. But then we begin to flit through the episodes in Filth's life. He is born in Malaya and his mum died a few days after giving birth; his grieving father ignored him and let him be brought up by the Malay villagers till he was five when he was sent to foster parents in Wales with his cousins Babs and Claire. This dreadful neglect by his father and the rupture of his relationship with the young Malay girl who is the daughter of his wet nurse and the only mother he has ever known began to make me interested but it is another 19 pages on.
As he is taken away to prep school by Sir (a wonderfully eccentric character; apparently a brilliant teacher of the old school if you'll pardon the pun) from the Welsh foster parents there are hints of something that has happened in Wales. Slowly this book begins to draw you in.
Most of what we learn is of Teddy's early life before he became a judge. This is mixed into a wonderful road trip he undertakes shortly after Betty's funeral (to the great concern of cleaning lady and gardener) when he goes to see mad Babs and horny Claire. But of his married life and his life in Hong Kong we learn almost nothing (I suppose this is because it aims to explore his childhood; Gardam quotes an inscription on a statue in the Temple Gardens which says 'Lawyers, I suppose, were children once'). Throughout, little hints are dropped of the dreadful thing that happened in Wales but since Filth will not even allow himself to think about it we learn almost nothing until he finally confesses to a priest.
There are some brilliant characters in this book. Their humanity is to the front. Being a judge, so important in so many people's eyes, is difficult because you are always being faced with wickedness (and condemning men to death is especially hard). But being a Raj orphan is immensely harder. Filth chose not to have children because he had never experienced parenting and knew that he wouldn't know how to be a parent. There is a lot of heart ache in this book.
I found the plotting a little strange (there are a number of threads that just don't go anywhere and the mysteries of Filth's later life are terra incognita) but the story is exceptional because of the wonderful characters and the compassion that is shown to our human condition.
December 2015; 257 pages
- Having reviewed over 1100 books on this blog, I have now written one myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. It is available on Kindle through Amazon. Read it and find out whether this critic can write. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57