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The wife's side of the story

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, November 1, 2009

THE MAN IN THE WOODEN HAT

By Jane Gardam

Europa. 233 pp. Paperback, $15

P eople lucky enough to have read Jane Gardam's previous novel, "Old Filth" (2006), will know that the nickname of its title character refers not to his state of cleanliness but to his youth. Many years in the past, Edward Feathers moved from England to the Far East in the hope of making his fortune. Old Filth is "an acronym for Failed in London Try Hong Kong." Try it he did, and made a great success of it. "A thoroughly good, nice man, diligent and clever," he rose steadily through Hong Kong legal circles, eventually achieving a prominent judgeship, a knighthood and, along the way, a wife.

It was his story that Gardam told in "Old Filth," and it is the wife's that she tells in "The Man in the Wooden Hat." Taken together, the two are a British equivalent of Evan S. Connell's classics of Americana, "Mrs. Bridge" and "Mr. Bridge." Connell's novels take place in Kansas City during the 1930s, while Gardam's are set in and around Hong Kong in the last days of empire, though each begins and ends in a quiet little town in Dorset. All four novels are notable for their sure-handed depictions of particular places and times, but they are most distinguished for their portraits of the four central characters and for their accounts of the marriages into which they have entered.

As to Gardam's pair of novels, what the old song says about love and marriage must be said about them: You can't have one without the other. They are a set, his and hers. To my taste, they are absolutely wonderful, and I would find it impossible to choose one over the other. While "Old Filth" is principally about the man, his dark boyhood at the mercy of a distant, unfeeling father, with the wife a rather shadowy character in the background, "The Man in the Wooden Hat" fills in her side of the story, in the process revealing itself to be an astute, subtle depiction of marriage, with all its shared experiences and separate secrets.

The wife's maiden name is Elisabeth Macintosh, though everyone calls her Betty. Flying from Heathrow to Hong Kong not long after World War II, Edward tells his friend and fellow survivor of the war, Albert Ross, that "she's a good sort. Very attractive," and that "she's very lively. Infectiously happy. Very bright eyes. Strong. Rather -- muscular. I feel safe with her. As a matter of fact, I would die for her." This, as it happens, is something of a misreading. Betty is indeed attractive and smart, "a linguist and a sociologist and an expert in ciphers," but her childhood was every bit as painful as Edward's. As a small girl she was taken to a Japanese internment camp on the Chinese mainland with her mother and father -- a common fate for Brits in Hong Kong during the war -- and eventually she lost both of them. Before her marriage she tells a friend:

"I have no aim. No certainty. I am a post-war invertebrate. I play mah-jong in my head year after year trying to find something I was born to do. I have settled on exactly what my mother would have wanted: a rich, safe, good husband and a pleasant life. All the things she must have thought in the Camp were gone for ever. Impossible for me, the scrawny child playing in the sand. Hearing screams, gunfire, silences in the night, lights searching in the barbed wire. I should be the last woman in the world to recreate the old world of the unswerving English wife. I am trying to please my dead mother. I always am."

She doesn't really love Edward and senses that theirs will be a marriage short on passion, so almost literally on the eve of their wedding she takes a startling leap in that direction with her husband-to-be's most bitter enemy. It is an act of infidelity that she never repeats but never forgets, as she settles into a marriage that is happier, more companionable and even more fulfilling than she had expected but that nonetheless seems to her an echo of her mother's proper British colonial marriage. Still, by the third day of what will be a half-century with Edward, she knows she will need "an unassailable privacy with my own life equal to his" because she suspects that "this must be how to make marriage work."

Edward loves and needs her with all his heart, but he is not an easy man to love or with whom to live. He is an unregenerate workaholic who is fully capable of ignoring her for days on end while he works on a case, and, what is worse, they are unable to have children. She had wanted to have at least 10, but perhaps because of her years in the camp (a doctor tells her, "You've put your body -- no, history has put your body -- through hard times"), she is unable to conceive and eventually has to undergo "a complete hysterectomy," a procedure sufficiently risky that she returns to London to put herself in the hands of "the best people."

She has many more years to live -- we know from the outset that she will die "planting tulips against an old red wall" in her garden in Dorset -- during which she manages to transform herself from "a copy of her dead mother on her marriage" into "the wife of a distinguished old man." Even as she does her duty, though, the old desires and longings persist so strongly that at the moment of her death she is on the verge of succumbing to them.

There is much more to the novel than the unfolding of Edward and Betty Featherses's marriage, including the mysterious presence of Albert Ross, a "Chinese dwarf," a "solicitor with an international reputation, only notionally Chinese," of whom Edward says: "Best person, just about, I've ever met. Most loyal. My salvation," but whom Betty immediately senses as a dangerous rival and threat. Suffice it to say that he knows her secrets and uses that knowledge to Edward's benefit.

Probably it will astonish American readers to learn that Jane Gardam, who is almost unknown in this country, is now in her early 80s, has published more than two dozen books (several for children) and has been much-honored in England; she has twice won the Whitbread Prize for Best Novel of the Year. No less surprising is that many of those books are in print in the United States, so there really is no excuse for her remaining unknown over here any longer.

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