Patrick Skene-Catling

Rich pickings

Delicious is a word that keeps coming to mind as one reads Jane Gardam’s new novel.

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The Man in the Wooden Hat

Jane Gardam

Chatto, pp. 213, £

Delicious is a word that keeps coming to mind as one reads Jane Gardam’s new novel.

Delicious is a word that keeps coming to mind as one reads Jane Gardam’s new novel. Delicious and poignant. The 81-year-old author’s mood is elegiac, and so eventually is that of Elizabeth, Betty, the wife of Sir Edward Feathers QC, who was portrayed first as the protagonist of Old Filth. ‘Filth’ is the acronym for Failed in London Try Hong Kong. Actually, his career progressed right from the start in a smooth upward trajectory, as a successful barrister in the Temple, an eminent judge in the Crown Colony. Now, depicted mainly from Betty’s point of view, the portrait is stereoscopic. She sees him as a stiff-upper-lip romantic, rather ludicrously conservative in his gentlemanly Englishness.

Betty, Scottish, born in Tiensin, survived years in a Japanese wartime internment camp in Shanghai, where her parents died. Like the man she married, she is equally at home — equally homeless — in the Far East and England. A missionary friend predicts that Betty will ‘metamorphose into a perfect specimen of 20th-century uxorial devotion,’ but with ‘a guilty secret’.

Edward has a guilty secret of his own, of an adolescent peccadillo with far- reaching consequences. The only person privy to these secrets and others is the solicitor who has enabled Edward to prosper, an internationally celebrated but enigmatic Chinese dwarf, who prefers to be known as a Hakkar, ‘the ancient red-brown tribe of oriental gypsies,’ and hints that he is an Old Etonian. He owns a Kowloon tree-house hidden in the woods and available, hired by the hour, for discreet assignations.

The dwarf is a pivotal figure in the plot, helping Gardam to render important coincidences plausible, and so deserves his place in the title of the book. Even there, however, he is inscrutable. It is true that there are such things as wearable hats made of wood, but the hat the dwarfishly macrocephalic solicitor wears every day, Gardam writes, is ‘a size 10 brown trilby … from St James’s Street,’ and a spokesperson for Lock’s informs me that they have never sold hats made of wood. Perhaps a reviewer should not quibble about such esoterica, but Gardam’s eye for details invests her writing with much of its charm, and I’d like her to know that I admiringly wondered at every nuance.

This novel is tantalisingly brief. If it were twice as long the story would not have been stretched too thin, for there are rich complexities of chronology, settings and characters, all manipulated with marvellous dexterity. Betty is sympathetically revealed throughout her adult life, from the time Edward proposes to her, by letter. ‘I do rather wish Eddie wasn’t so perfect,’ she soliloquises. ‘But of course I’ll marry him. I can’t think of a reason not to.’ The ‘only threat’ to Edward’s regime of privileged order is one Terry Veneering, his opponent in legal cases, who is socially inferior but more temptingly energetic. By the time Edward and Betty retire from Hong Kong to ‘a glorious part of England known as the Donheads’ she feels they are ‘jaundiced has-beens’, but, as disclosed on the second page of the narrative, she achieves a pleasant enough death ‘while she was planting tulips against an old red wall’. Sooner or later, almost all the principals die (except that dwarf), and yet the novel does not seem tragic. It’s delicious.