Malaya in the 1930s

He was spectacularly clean, runs the opening line in Jane Gardam’s novel – sharply in contrast with Edward Feather’s nickname of Filth. And the reluctant protagonist keeps it clean rejecting teenage sex, his golf-mad aunts, his father and the community he eventually retires to in Dorset.

A loner, a lawyer, a judge and a man of Empire spelt with a small ‘E’. After his mother dies in Malaya he’s initially brought up by locals before being sent to England by his father for life with relatives and boarding schools before the Second World War. Jane Gardam’s skill is illustrating moments in his life with brevity and vividness that captures a changing world of District Officers in the Raj, cold showers in prep school, outrageous snobbery about the Welsh and trains packed with soldiers singing Roll out the Barrel.

On reading a letter about his childhood from Claire he sums up one aspect of the novel – that of looking back and realising where you are in life. He says to himself: “I am old at last, he thought. I should be cold too. But I am casting off the coldness of youth and putting on the maudlin armour of dotage.”

When as a small child he is removed from the arms of a Malay family to be sent to England for education he questions the reasons. “Why can’t I stay here?” he says and the answer comes; “Because white children often die here.” But the real answer is his father has the funds to send him to Britain to become a son of the Empire.

Neatly written scenes that take the reader backwards and forwards in time. From Edward’s childhood and coming of age to his lonely Christmas dinners in Salisbury in old age after his wife has died doing the gardening whilst burying the evidence of an affair with Edward’s rival Veneering.

Much to enjoy, not a page turner, but a series of vignettes of lives lived – when the sun never set on the British Empire.

Harry Mottram

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