One of the travel souvenirs I would have liked to have left behind – a debilitating headcold – had me seeking the comfort of hot broth and tea, and a new Jane Gardam book – “Last Friends.” Sometimes stuffed ears are a blessing.
If you are a fan of “Old Filth,”you will remember the three principals: Eddie Feathers, known as Old Filth – Failed in London, Try Hong Kong; Betty, his wife, the focus of the second book – “The Man With the Wooden Hat” – and Terry Veneering, Old Filth’s nemesis. Gardam opens with the funeral of Feathers, months after the service for Veneering. The locals fill in the background to remind you of the men’s rivalry in both law and love for Feathers’ wife, Betty – and the irony that brought them together in old age.
Gardam uses her last book in the trilogy to focus on Veneering’s young life, his escape from poverty, and the insidious influences that shaped him.
Veneering – named for a social climbing character in Dickens’ “Our Mutual Friend” – was born Terry Vanetski. His father was a Russian left behind by his circus troupe when he fell during a performance and injured his back.
Changed his name and went south. Something you could spell more easier…His mother worked the coal-cart round the streets. His dad were a Russian spy…”
Like Old Filth, Veneering manages to escape his roots.
Two minor characters reappear, Fiscal-Smith, now 90 years old, and as drudgy as ever, and Dulcie, the widow of Judge Willy Williams, who conducted Old Filth’s wedding to Betty, and who brought Veneering to Hong Kong. Gardam uses these two characters to move back and forth between the past and the present, with poignant and sometimes funny observations on old age. As they reminisce, they reveal more secrets about the three main characters and about themselves.
With her usual attention to details, her witty and vivid language, and her skillful weaving of soap opera intrigue with historical notes and personal drama, Gardam’s last book in the trilogy is pure pleasure…whether or not you have read the first two books. And her ending has a note of whimsical hope for old age.
“Fiction got us through…the two old trolls sat over their cards thinking occasionally of Tolstoy.”
Gardam is a treasure.