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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Man in the Wooden Hat

Jane Gardam

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To purchase The Man in the Wooden Hat

Title: The Man in the Wooden Hat
Author: Jane Gardam
Genre: Novel
Written: 2009
Length: 229 pages
Availability: The Man in the Wooden Hat - US
The Man in the Wooden Hat - UK
The Man in the Wooden Hat - Canada
L'uomo col cappello di legno - Italia

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Our Assessment:

A- : wonderful writing, lives -- and a relationship -- very well presented

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Christian Science Monitor . 18/12/2009 Yvonne Zipp
Financial Times A 7/9/2009 Martin Ouvry
The Guardian . 5/9/2009 Richard Eyre
The Independent . 30/9/2009 Michael Arditti
Independent on Sunday . 11/10/2009 Rachel Hore
London Rev. of Books . 11/3/2010 Tessa Hadley
The LA Times . 21/12/2009 James Marcus
The NY Times Book Rev. . 29/11/2009 Louisa Thomas
The New Yorker . 2/11/2009 .
The Observer . 6/9/2009 Olivia Laing
The Spectator . 9/9/2009 Patrick Skene Catling
Sunday Times . 15/11/2009 Maggie Gee
The Telegraph . 22/8/2009 Jane Shilling
The Times . 22/8/2009 Jane Wheatley
The Washington Post . 1/11/2009 Jonathan Yardley

  Review Consensus:

  Almost all think the writing is masterful, or close to it

  From the Reviews:
  • "With incisive clarity, Gardam plays out a decades-long struggle between married loyalty and thwarted passion -- conducted silently and under an ever-so-proper exterior -- but no less life and death for all that." - Yvonne Zipp, Christian Science Monitor

  • "Gardamís writing is lyrical and never strains, even when it rises to a high rhetorical note. (...) Full of subtle excavations of private thoughts, and brimming with a celebratory attitude to language, The Man in the Wooden Hat aches for lost opportunities and beams with wit and joy." - Martin Ouvry, Financial Times

  • "That pitch-perfect death is typical of Gardam's writing. While the narrative is kaleidoscopic -- letters (some unsent), flashbacks, scenes from a screenplay -- it is always sure-footed. There's something Dickensian about it -- Old Filth and Veneering's names, the part-conjuror part-guardian angel Albert Ross, the remarkable coincidences, the revelation of ancient secrets -- but there's nothing Dickensian about the spare, subtle prose, glazed with irony and wit." - Richard Eyre, The Guardian

  • "Gardam's writing is like painting on glass: vivid and translucent. There may be little depth, but it scarcely matters when the surface has such charm." - Michael Arditti, The Independent

  • "Understated is a word that is often applied to Gardam's writing. The intrusion of narrative commentary is rare in her books; the characters tell their own stories through flashes of thought and perfectly pitched dialogue, leaving the reader to muse on their interpretation. But this tendency is exacerbated here. (...) The raising of individual yet believable characters such as Betty is surely what fiction is for. In carefully observed, jewelled prose, Gardam lets her paint this complex story of a world now faded and gone." - Rachel Hore, Independent on Sunday

  • "The Man in the Wooden Hat retains the feeling of a subsidiary work. And yet without it, these scenes from a marriage would be woefully incomplete. It turns out that even a (relatively) silent partner has something important to say." - James Marcus, The Los Angeles Times

  • "On its own, The Man in the Wooden Hat is funny and affecting, but read alongside Old Filth, itís remarkable. Gardam has attempted to turn a story inside out without damaging the original narrativeís integrity -- moving from black to white without getting stuck with gray. Little here is as it seemed in Old Filth, and both books are the richer for it." - Louisa Thomas, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Like Gardamís other novels, this work has satiric charm, but, just as the lovers never crack one anotherís "unassailable privacy," Gardam never lets the reader meaningfully trespass on their inner lives." - The New Yorker

  • "Telling the same story twice requires deftness if it is not to drag. Gardam often excels at this. She is fond of secrets and uses the format to play around with how much husbands and wives hide from Ė and know about Ė each other. The final spate of revelations illuminates not only this story but its predecessors too. But one need not be familiar with Filth's history to be moved by Betty's final summation of her long marriage" - Olivia Laing, The Observer

  • "Delicious is a word that keeps coming to mind as one reads Jane Gardamís new novel. Delicious and poignant. The 81-year-old authorís mood is elegiac (.....) 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." - Patrick Skene Catling, The Spectator

  • "Economy is this novelís first literary virtue, wit the second. (...) Not many writers, let alone writers in their eighties, have Gardamís style and balls." - Maggie Gee, Sunday Times

  • "What a lot Jane Gardam knows about love and its accommodations; the rich contradictory play of desire and loyalty, the sudden storms of feeling that assail the edifice of a marriage. And how elegantly and intelligently and kindly she writes about the instinctive, tendril-like gropings of one human heart towards another." - Jane Shilling, The Telegraph

  • "This book works perfectly in its own right, but if you havenít already read Old Filth, do so first: like their two protagonists, they are greater than the sum of their parts." - Jane Wheatley, The Times

  • "As to Gardam's pair of novels, what the old song says about love and marriage must be said about them: You can't have one without the other. They are a set, his and hers. To my taste, they are absolutely wonderful, and I would find it impossible to choose one over the other." - Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Man in the Wooden Hat is not truly a sequel to Old Filth but rather a complement to it. It covers much of the same terrain, and while the focus is more on Elizabeth ('Betty') than Old Filth himself (Eddie Feathers) -- at least until the last section, after her death -- it further enhances the portraits of both figures (while still leaving aspects murky); the two books belong together, and should certainly be enjoyed together.
       Gardam is an exceptional writer. Once again she manages to convey a great deal -- and most of the essence -- of many of her characters and figures in almost incidental details and comments and descriptions that can seem like simple asides. Her descriptions aren't summary; rather, they cut easily (and occasionally painfully) to the quick. Her writing is a model of concision that nevertheless feels very full and rich.
       The first half of the book centers on Elizabeth and Filth getting married. After a brief glimpse of the present, the novel begins with Filth's proposal some five decades earlier -- in the form of a letter, to a girl he barely knows. Both have no real family. Filth is an up-and-coming lawyer (and then judge), with his own protector -- the man in the wooden hat of the title, the diminutive Albert Ross, a Chinese dwarf who can't even pronounce his own last name (he says: 'Loss').
       Like Filth, the orphaned Elizabeth doesn't speak much about her past or what she has been through. She was both interned in a Japanese camp in Shanghai during World War II and worked on the decoding of Enigma at Bletchley Park. She's to come into some money when she is thirty -- still a few years away when Filth proposes -- but is relatively at sea; as for marrying Filth, she can't see any reason not to.
       Needy Filth insists only that she never leave him, knowing he couldn't bear yet another loss like that -- but the brief engagement period tests both of them. Elizabeth succumbs to passion, with the man who will be Filth's life-long nemesis (and, in old age, neighbor), Terry Veneering, a man who will always shadow (and occasionally intrude on) their lives -- but it turns out Filth was also sorely tempted during those days. But they do marry, and they do have a happy marriage of sorts.
       Gardam presents only some scenes from a marriage: after detailing these early days, she skips over longer periods. They first move back to a London just beginning its post-war recovery, before eventually settling back in Hong Kong. Elizabeth expected to raise a whole brood of children, but the couple will remain childless, a tragedy that certainly also shapes who they become. The closest to a substitute child Elizabeth finds is Veneering's son, whom she always looks out for after meeting him as a young boy, hiding under a table, in Hong Kong. Filth works hard and is very successful; eventually they grow old and decide to leave the now rapidly-changing Hong Kong (soon to be returned to China), and retire to England. Elizabeth takes to gardening, almost obsessively; it's in the garden that she keels over dead, too.
       The Man in the Wooden Hat is a five-act drama. Seemingly minor characters play pivotal roles and a variety of secrets, slowly revealed (right down to the last line), shift perceptions and understanding. Gardam retains an air of mystery around all her characters -- what did clever Elizabeth do at Bletchley Park ? is just one of the question marks remaining even at the end -- and yet conveys the characters so fully that even their enigmatic ways and actions seem convincing. Even the elusive and yet omnipresent Chinese dwarf, an entirely unreal character, works in this work.
       Gardam's love story is a complex one that, as often in real life, is not simply binary but rather is complicated by the various feelings and emotions (and other people) the lovers bring to it. But it is splendidly presented, as Gardam consistently finds the proper tone as well as presentation (which includes letters (with asides as to the fate of these, some of which never reached their recipients) and a section presented like a screenplay-treatment).
       A quick and surprisingly rich read. Certainly recommended (especially together with Old Filth.)

- M.A.Orthofer, 3 January 2010

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The Man in the Wooden Hat: Reviews: Jane Gardam: Other books by Jane Gardam under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       British author Jane Gardam was born in 1928.

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© 2010-2023 the complete review

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