Critical Mass

Dog Days of Summer Reads: Mary Ann Gwinn

By Mary Ann Gwinn

I have an oppressive list of books I’m supposed to be reading, but on the insistence of a friend, I picked up a copy of “Old Filth” by Jane Gardam (Europa Editions). I have been captured and captivated by this pitch-perfect novel, the life story of a “Raj orphan,” one of the thousands of British children who were separated from their parents and sent to England to live and be schooled during the days of Empire. 

Sir Edward “Old Filth” Feathers is a piece of work, and for good reason; born in Malaysia but separated from his mother after she dies in childbirth, he’s shipped to a horrible foster home in Wales, then rescued by “Sir,” the bird-obsessed head of a benign British boys school. In stiff-upper-lip fashion, he rises above his limitations and becomes an immensely wealthy attorney and judge in Hong Kong (“Old Filth”, Eddie’s nickname, is an acronym for Failed in London, Try Hong Kong).

Then his wife Betty keels over and expires while planting tulips in November. Eddie goes on a slightly mad post-funeral odyssey around the English countryside, confronting the mysterious blind spots in his rich, tragic and complicated past.

“Old Filth” has some of the sad, dying empire-resonance of “The Remains of the Day,” but it’s much funnier. If I could write like Gardam, I would take a page from Eddie’s book and retire with a stiff gin to the garden.–Mary Ann Gwinn, Book Editor, Seattle Times, NBCC Board Member