Old Filth (2004)

by Jane Gardam

Old Filth is an off-putting title, but it’s really an acronym for Failed in London, Try Hong Kong. Sir Edward Feathers did make an illustrious career as a lawyer and judge in Hong Kong, but Old Filth spans his entire life, moving nonchronologically from the present, Sir Edwards’s old age, to his past.

Edward was born in Malaysia to a British colonial administrator and his wife, who died three days later, and like other “Raj orphans” was shipped back to Britain for schooling. Following a bleak childhood and youth, he returns to the Far East after World War II to pursue his career. He has a passionless marriage to a woman he nonetheless is devoted to. He and Betty go back to England after his retirement, and she dies. Built on this skeleton of Edward’s story are many interesting, sometimes comedic, and sometimes harrowing incidents. 

Although outwardly a success, Edward is emotionally stunted, lacking friends and having trouble fitting in anywhere. Yet Gardam portrays Edward as his own man instead of a pathetic character. The present-day scenes are especially rich, as Edward’s sworn enemy and late wife’s lover becomes his closest companion in his old age.

Old Filth is the novel that brought Gardam to the attention of America readers. In 2016 Ann Patchett chose it one of the 75 best books of the previous 75 years.


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