Friday, 31 October 2014

The Man in the Wooden Hat ~ By Jane Gardam

This short novel, of just 233 pages, is the sequel to the wonderful novel, 'Old Filth', a book which is so much better that its title suggests.  The story follows the life of Edward Feathers, retired judge, and his wife Betty.  This novel, re-tells their life stories, but this time from Betty's perspective.  I say that, but in reality, in touches on Filth's story too.  Thoughts and feelings expressed in the first book are often at odds with those in this novel, and it adds a lovely realism to the text.  The events are filled-out and facts augmented.

Don't we all recall different versions of our lives, that those closest to us might not even recognize?  Memories cannot be relied on as truth, and so it is in this novel.  How we remember things and how memory is essentially unreliable, is at the core of this novel.

What is so endearing about this book, is that nearly every scene carried a lovely poignancy because it relates to something else that has happened, in previous chapters or in the previous book.  For example, the first time that Betty meets Veneering's son, Harry, he is under a table, eating.  She loves this little boy from the first.  
But when one remembers back to 'Old Filth', we recall how Edward used to eat under the table too when he was first sent away from his home in Malaya.  As the reader of these novels, only we can see the truth, can see how the characters know only part of the story, and this knowledge is delicious.   It makes gods of us and makes the characters all the more dear to us.  Betty cannot possibly know, as we do, this interesting fact about her husband, and here Gardam makes her point: people are so complex, that they are often unknowable. 

What I like about the book?- Simple - I love the character of Old Filth. (Filth stands for the mocking phrase - Failed in London Try Hong Kong - which is a joke, as Filth is always immaculate and has an outstanding career. ) From the very first, when we meet the little motherless boy, cast our of his home in Malaya, with a father so caught in his own grief on the death, in childbirth, of his young wife, we are hooked.  In the second novel we watch wait to see if  Betty will love him as he deserves and know, before she does, that she loves him.  We despair when their wires get crossed, when one does not realise how the other loves them.  

The plot itself is not a roller coaster ride; it just reflects the lives lived by so-called Raj orphans, the basic events in life that we can all relate to.  In fact, we are told the ending close to the beginning.  In this story, we find ourselves going round in circles, uncovering more and more about the characters, regardless of plot.  This story belongs to the characters, the plot is immaterial.  

Still, this book is deeply satisfying and provokes readers to reconsider what we actually know about ourselves and those we love.  It even makes us question love itself; can we ever truly love another person, appreciate them or, know them. This is a very unsettling and quite a radical concept, hidden away in what appears to be a very traditional novel.   

The book considers marriage, motherhood, rejection, infidelity, betrayal, self-deception, the end of empire and the invisibility of the elderly; quite an achievement for such a short novel.  
As for the title of the book - again a strange choice -  I have spent some time thinking about what it means and I have come to the conclusion that it refers to guilt.  Of course, it specifically alludes to Ross, Filth's friend, who wears such a hat.  It also could refer to the sculpture made from bog oak that Veneering let drop in the museum; he had a wooden hat.  Because of its connection with both of these men, it strikes me that the wooden hat symbolizes guilt.  

Whenever Betty does something she oughtn't to, without Edward's knowledge, Ross appears.  Sometimes, it is not clear if Betty had conjured him from her imagination, or has dreamed him up.  This adds to the mystical quality of Ross and makes him seem all the more dangerous to Betty.  He haunts her, just as guilt does, knowing, as he does, all her little secrets.  He appears out of nowhere and prevents her from leaving Edward - the same can be said of guilt.

Like 'Old Filth', this book, which is much better than its name suggests, is one of my favourites - I am sure that I will read and re-read it, for such good books are meant to be treasured and valued.  Next - to read the third and final novel from he series: 'Last Friends'.  Published in 2013, it has a lot to live up to - but I think Gardam, now in her eighties, is up to it.