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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Old Filth

Jane Gardam

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To purchase Old Filth

Title: Old Filth
Author: Jane Gardam
Genre: Novel
Written: 2004
Length: 289 pages
Availability: Old Filth - US
Old Filth - UK
Old Filth - Canada
Figlio dell'impero britannico - Italia

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Our Assessment:

A- : excellent storytelling, though the story itself frays a bit towards the end

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian A+ 20/11/2004 Stevie Davies
The Independent . 26/11/2004 Marianne Brace
Independent on Sunday . 21/11/2004 Lesley McDowell
New Humanist A 1/11/2004 Sally Feldman
New Statesman A+ 7/2/2005 Amanda Craig
The NY Sun . 14/6/2006 Benjamin Lytal
The NY Times Book Rev. A 23/7/2006 Paul Gray
The New Yorker . 3/7/2006 .
San Francisco Chronicle . 25/6/2006 Helena Echlin
The Spectator . 6/11/2004 John Mortimer
The Telegraph . 12/12/2004 Kate Chisholm
The Telegraph A 12/12/2004 Julia Flynn
TLS . 12/11/2004 Ruth Scurr

  Review Consensus:

  Very impressed, and some think it's brilliant

  From the Reviews:
  • "This novel is surely Gardam's masterpiece. On the human level, it is one of the most moving fictions I have read for years. (...) Rich in such moving perspectives, Old Filth is even richer in its tragicomic style. This is the rare novel that drives its reader for ward while persistently waylaying and detaining by the sheer beauty and inventiveness of its style. One must savour every phrase. The marriage of quirky eccentricity and psychological authenticity is a Gardam technique, but here her cunning wit, moving deftly between scenes and eras, displays the tragedy of a vintage world forever passing away." - Stevie Davies, The Guardian

  • "Yet with so much darting back and forth, occasionally the narrative becomes confusing. That said, Gardam's dialogue is sharp and true; her characters humorous and touching. She is especially good at English stiff-upper-lippery." - Marianne Brace, The Independent

  • "There is inevitably more flash-back than present-tense narrative in a story that revolves around a man at this advanced age, and Gardam's moving and magnetic novel meanders through the scenes of Filth's life, a flickering torch lighting up the darkness with short, flashing sentences. But she convincingly contrasts Filth's attitudes with a younger generation represented by Claire's son, Oliver and his lawyer girlfriend Vanessa, and which betray an appealing modesty about his own formidable reputation in the Law Courts." - Lesley McDowell, Independent on Sunday

  • "This penetrating study of the effects of childhood neglect focuses on one brilliantly drawn character (.....) This is a marvellously rich and textured story, alive with potent characters and vivid descriptions of privation and adventure. The writing is punctured with exquisite images that weave together the personal stories and their wider backdrop." - Sally Feldman, New Humanist

  • "Gardamís pared-down style is perfectly suited to describing the thoughts and memories of an emotional cripple. (...) Readers will relish Old Filth for its compassionate wisdom, its comprehension of the way we lived then and now, and its absolute mastery of authorial tone, the product a life-time of experience and craft. It is a Rembrandt portrait of a novel. Donít miss it." - Amanda Craig, New Statesman

  • "Jane Gardam's highly entertaining Old Filth finds its own way of bringing old literary values into the present day, by setting a walking anachronism, a judge who made his fortune in still-colonial Hong Kong, loose on the A1. (...) Old Filth remains a lovable allegory for the empire in decline. " - Benjamin Lytal, The New York Sun

  • "Yet the miracle of Old Filth is that its hero eludes sociological or psychological pigeonholing. If he is a characteristic Raj orphan, he is also triumphantly his own man, with a life full of unexpected turns and events of high comedy to offset and compensate for his unpromising beginnings. (...) Gardamís novel is an anthology of such bittersweet scenes, rendered by a novelist at the very top of her form." - Paul Gray, The New York Times Book Review

  • "(M)ordantly funny (.....) Gardamís prose is so economical that no moment she describes is either gratuitous or wasted." - The New Yorker

  • "When the death of his wife releases buried memories, the novel becomes a poignant examination of loneliness and regret. (...) Unfortunately, Gardam mars her climax with the revelation of a long-buried murder. (...) It is out of place in a book that is otherwise quietly exquisite." - Helena Echlin, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "(B)eautifully written and strangely moving" - John Mortimer, The Spectator

  • "As a novelist, Jane Gardam (...) knows just how much to leave out. Old Filth leaves you wondering not only about the weirdness of adults who behave towards children as if they were another species, but also about the virtues of the stiff upper lip." - Kate Chisholm, The Telegraph

  • "As a psychological thriller, the novel suffers from a certain predictability. Childhood traumas are two a penny in modern fiction and, in rooting her hero's coldness in the emotional deprivations he suffered as a child, Jane Gardam is in danger of trading in clichés. But any sense of déjà vu is obliterated by the freshness and vigour with which she tells her comi-tragic tale. The main character, all briskness on the surface, all turbulence underneath, is brilliantly drawn." - Julia Flynn, The Telegraph

  • "This is a novel of deep ambivalence: structured to reveal an old man's darkest secret, but still committed to the ethos that such secrets in general are better kept. It values highly the masks people wear to disguise extreme feelings, while probing what happens when these slip irrevocably. There are flashes of quick subtle humour throughout: "She had never been sure about Filth and love". What emerges overall is a convincing portrait of a man who is what Kipling claimed to be: intimately acquainted with cruelty, but devoid of personal hatred." - Ruth Scurr, Times Literary Supplement

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:

       Old Filth is the story of Sir Edward Feathers, a successful lawyer and then judge, now retired. The novel moves back and forth in time, revisiting his childhood and formative years as well as focussing on his last attempts in the present to deal with the past after the death of his wife.
       Feathers is known as 'Old Filth' -- the 'Filth' standing for: "Failed in London Try Hong Kong". That's what Feathers did, but only at the end of the book is it revealed how he wound up there, and the Hong Kong years that made him are almost entirely ignored. Instead, the focus is on the years that really made him -- into the man he was, if not yet the success.
       Feathers was born in Malaya, his mother dying shortly after giving birth. His father, a District Officer in the outback, never showed much interest in the child. For a few years the boy was raised near him, but then, as he approached school-age, he was shipped off to Wales to a foster family, moving on after that to first one, then another boarding school.
       Two of Feathers' cousins stay in the same home in Wales, but those three years are elided over, with, at first, only a hint that something must have happened here. Though he has little contact with them in the decades that follow, it is the cousins, Babs and Claire, that he also eventually seeks out in his dotage, to come to terms with it all.
       Each station of Feathers' early life is marked by abrupt loss as he moves on to the next -- his mother, Ada, the Malay girl who raised him, his cousins. At school he at least makes a good friend, Ingoldby, and it's at the Ingoldbys' that he spends his vacations for years to come, practically adopted into the family -- really, the only one he's ever known. But the Ingoldbys too have their issues and problems; ultimately they also can't be the substitute family he needs.
       Feathers has some luck with the figures that come into his life, nurturing souls such as Ada, his first schoolmaster, and the Ingoldbys, but it's not the same as family. His father, a shattered soul, is completely unable to communicate with the boy, and barely exists in his life. His two aunts are golf-mad loons (somewhat exaggerated comic figures, but so ridiculous that Gardam gets away with it). A rare case of paternal involvement in his life comes when World War II has started, and the father wants to have the nearly adult Feathers evacuated to Singapore. It becomes a decisive journey in Feathers' life, but certainly not in the way anyone had expected or hoped.
       The book keeps its biggest surprises for the end: who Feathers served in World War II, what happened back in Wales -- explaining, in large part, why he never became a family man himself, his marriage remaining childless. Oddly, in pulling together the loose ends -- in filling in the blanks -- the novel becomes looser, less rather than more satisfying. Gardam foists what seems like unnecessarily much on Feathers: less might well have been more. Yet this fraying is also appropriate: Feathers is already very old by the end, and his mind no longer always entirely clear. Set in his ways, there's a lot of the world around him he is ill-adapted to (including driving ...), yet he still insists on getting his way, fumbling and bumbling as he does so.
       If the story itself isn't ultimately entirely satisfying, Old Filth is still a very good read. Gardam fills her book with remarkably independent souls, living in their own worlds, and almost all of them are remarkably well drawn and presented. Feathers and Mrs. Ingoldby are particularly successful characters, but many of the minor characters are exceptionally well-done too -- enough that one can almost overlook the surfeit of quirkiness (there's little normality to be found here). The book is also filled with memorable scenes, often mere small exchanges or events, but, in Gardam's hands, they're all remarkably telling.
       Gardam excels at sketchy presentation, leaving much unsaid and yet setting it up so well that the reader can fill the voids, making for a rich read. Childhood and old age are captured often stunningly well -- but there is that odd gap of actual adulthood, barely rating a mention. (She does slip in a yuppie couple -- Claire's son and girlfriend -- though they're hardly prime examples; still, it's a very funny episode, if perhaps a bit too hard on the modern generation.)
       This is very good storytelling, of an order rarely found, with a surprising balance of melancholy and humour. There are perhaps a few too many too-scarred characters, and there's the strange message that the only way of achieving happiness seems to be to live in a world entirely of your own making (social contact is more of a bother than anything else to most of the book's characters), but it's presented so well that one can hardly object.
       This is also the relatively rare sort of book that is so layered and rich that a 'review' -- of this or most any sort -- hardly suffices (indeed, hardly scratches the surface -- or only a few of the surfaces); there's so much more to it, so many angles to it, so many approaches one could take. (So it is also definitely book group or classroom material.)

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Old Filth: 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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© 2006-2023 the complete review

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