“Her pages are underlain with a gentle compassion for her fellow travelers moving toward the end we share in common.”
Jane Gardam, much admired in her native Britain but not widely read here, writes with a pen dipped in very black ink.
Her characters teeter on the edge of disaster and upheaval, and her writing occupies the delicate territory between magical realism and discursive narrative. She writes about endings—the end of Empire, the end of love, the end of life itself—and the dangerous no man’s land we traverse when those endings rear up before us.
In 17 novels, most notably 1991’s Queen of the Tambourine, she’s led us through an intricate web of loss, loneliness, and redemptive circumstance, casting out threads that her characters grasp in desperation to find their way to new beginnings.
This may sound like bleak reading (and Ms. Gardam has acknowledged Thomas Hardy as an early inspiration), but the author’s great gift is to leaven her subject matter with dark, often very funny humor and a little glimmer of fantasy.
Her prose is unadorned, her dialogue often clipped and perfunctory, but her pages are underlain with a gentle compassion for her fellow travelers moving, in her later novels, toward the end that we share in common.
These admirable qualities were particularly welcome in 2004’s Old Filth and its companion novel of 2009, The Man in the Wooden Hat. In the first book, Ms. Gardam introduced her crusty barrister Sir Edward Feathers, given the book’s title moniker for decamping from London to practice corporate law in China (“Failed In London Try Hong Kong”) during the post-war decline of the British Empire. In the second book, she told much the same story, but from the point of view of Sir Edward’s deceptively meek wife, Betty who, we discovered, had an inner life unknown even to her husband.
Two years after the book appeared, Ms. Gardam told an interviewer for The Guardian that she “had a hankering to revisit some of it;” and so now she gives us Last Friends, centered on a third character who appears in the earlier books, Sir Edward’s archenemy in the courtroom, Terry Veneering, who was also Betty’s paramour and the Feathers’ neighbor in retirement in the rural Dorset village of St. Ague.
Ms. Gardam’s fondness for Dickens underlies Veneering’s story of alienation, abandonment, and a resurrected identity. Orphaned during the wartime German blitz of England, Veneering’s survives near-destitution thanks to an unlikely benefactor, along with a mentor who borrows from Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend to bestow a new family name (“an unpleasant character, and you will have to redeem him,” the newly-christened Veneering is told).
Veneering falls in love at first sight with the woman he can never touch, the soon-to-be Betty Feathers, the daughter of the man who will sponsor his coming career in Hong Kong. Glinting like beads along Ms. Gardam’s narrative are the equally Dickensian names of some of her characters—Veronica Fondle, Peter Parable, and Frederick Fiscal-Smith among them.
Ms. Gardam balances Veneering’s picaresque tale with a beautifully drawn character, Dulcie, who appears in one of the short stories in Ms. Gardam’s collection The People of Privilege Hill. Dulcie is very nearly the oldest resident of St. Ague and, at the beginning of Last Friends, is about to set out for the memorial service in London for Sir Edward. Dulcie and her late husband were members in good standing of the British ex-pat community in Hong Kong that included Edward, Betty and Veneering; now, as Dulcie observes, “Everyone gone now. Nobody left.”
But as it turns out, there is one left, and Dulcie’s difficult journey to his side provides the surrounding contemporary framework for the novel, which ends with the resurrected hope of an Easter service at St. Ague’s village church.
“One should take a long, hard look at old friends,” one of Ms. Gardam’s characters muses halfway through Last Friends. “Like old clothes in a cupboard, there comes a moment to examine for moth. Perhaps throw them out and forget them.”
Happily, Ms. Gardam didn’t forget these old friends, but has given us a bittersweet portrait of growing old, of an end that carries the blessing of fulfillment—maybe even a kind of happiness.