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Old Filth – Book Review

Old Filth dozed off then with this picture before him, wondering at the clarity of an image thirty years old when what happened yesterday had receded into darkness. He was nearly eighty now. -From Old Filth, page 24-

Old Filth (“Failed in London Try Hong Kong”) is a surly, retired Judge who begins to remember his past as he enters the final years of his life. The story is told in a series of flashbacks, taking the reader to Malaya where Filth was born, to Wales where he is fostered by the evil Ma Didds, to England where he attends school, and to Hong Kong where he finds his professional niche. Along the way, people from Filth’s past surface to fill in the gaps of his memory – and a crime is uncovered.

This book was hard to rate – there were moments of brilliance from Jane Gardam. She likes to play with words and metaphor, such as when Filth meets a character by the name of Loss.

Loss’s defection was the metaphor for Eddie’s life. It was Eddie’s fate always to be left. Always to be left and forgotten. Everyone gone, now. Out of his reach. For the first time, Eddie was utterly on his own. -From Old Filth, page 230-


Gardam also uses this same style to explore the idea of revelation – a central theme in the novel.

The suitcase was immense. He got it out of the roof like a difficult birth. Its label called it a Revelation.  “Revelation was once the very best luggage,” said Filth. “They were revelations’ because they expanded.” -From Old Filth, page 282-


And just in case the reader misses it,  Gardam ties it up in a neat bow when Filth strikes up a conversation with a character he meets on a plane.

“I always feel tip-top. I say – you’re not by any chance…?”
“Yes. Old Filth. Long forgotten.”
“Well, you’re still remembered out here.”
“Yes. Well, I dare say. I hope so. Ha. Did you ever come across a chap called Loss?”
“No. I don’t think so.”
“Or Islam?”
“They’re all called Islam.”
“He’s probably dead. Certainly retired. I’ve got one of his suitcases. Called a Revelation.” -From Old Filth, page 287-

Gardam is a natural storyteller who writes stellar dialogue, heavy with meaning. Despite this, Old Filth is not an easy novel to read. At times the story becomes dreamlike and the characters warp into odd, almost surreal figures. Gardam’s style tends to be circular, which ultimately leaves the reader with a satisfying end.

Not great, but good. Recommended for those readers who enjoy literary puzzles and creative use of language.

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