The marvelously versatile Gardam (Faith Fox, 2003, etc.) dips into British imperial history for her extraordinary portrait of a Raj orphan.
Filth is an acronym (Failed In London, Try Hong Kong) and the affectionate nickname for Sir Edward Feathers, whose distinguished career, as an advocate and judge, began in Hong Kong in 1947. His colleagues saw an “untroubled and uneventful life.” Boy, were they wrong. For Eddie, son of a servant of Empire, was a Raj orphan whose common lot was to be shipped off to British foster families. Eddie’s case was extreme. His mother died after giving birth in Malaya; his whisky-fueled father rejected him; he was housed with a native girl, Ada, who adored him. Eddie’s first trauma will be his removal from Ada; the four-year-old is dispatched (in steerage) to a child-hating, sadistic foster mother in Wales, Ma Didds. His time with her will be his second great trauma. The story begins when Filth is an old man, living alone in the English countryside, his beloved wife Betty recently dead, then alternates fluidly between old age and childhood and youth, which had its bright spots. Filth has repressed memories of Ma Didds’s regime, which he ended dramatically with the help of her other charges, his cousins Babs and Claire. Yet the horrifying memory tolls like a distant bell, and the climax comes when Filth and Babs relive it, in the presence of a priest. The wheel has come full circle; the old man is as vulnerable as a child; his spiritual journey is complete. Gardam’s richly textured novel is packed with memorable sequences: Eddie traveling to Singapore, an evacuee from WW2 Britain, sharing a cabin with a half-Chinese cardsharp; back in Britain, guarding Queen Mary from the Germans; much later, in shock after Betty’s death, driving wildly across England to visit ancient, half-mad cousin Babs, who has just proposed to a schoolboy.
One of the finest achievements of this greatly talented British author.