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Wry views of a feisty generation

Jane Gardam's short stories depict the challenges of aging in a changing world.

By Heller McAlpin / July 3, 2008



If you’ve never read Jane Gardam – and most Americans haven’t – you’re in for a treat. She’s been writing fiction for grown-ups since 1975, and has won numerous literary awards, including the Whitbread twice and the Booker shortlist.

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But it was only with the 2006 Europa edition of “Old Filth,” her wry and moving novel about an emotionally scarred Raj orphan loosely based on the life of Rudyard Kipling, that she finally broke the Atlantic barrier. Her character, Sir Edward Feathers, is unforgettable: a retired barrister and judge who was called Filth by his peers – an acronym for Failed in London, Try Hong Kong, but also because he was so punctilious. Gardam’s novel captures this emotionally stunted remnant of a dying empire in his old age.

Who knows why it took so long for Jane Gardam to surface stateside, because her writing is wonderful. She’s right up there with Mary Wesley (“The Camomile Lawn”) and the two Penelopes (Lively and Fitzgerald), with a strong, unmistakably British voice that ranges from bracing irony to deep compassion.

The 14 stories in Gardam’s marvelously titled new collection, The People on Privilege Hill, focus to a large extent on members of her generation (she was born July 11, 1928, soon to turn 80) or that of her parents. These generally feisty individuals recall sometimes troubling events from their prime while they cope with the affronts of aging in a changing world. Not all the stories are winners, but even the slightest offer the pleasures of Gardam’s brisk, sharp sensibility.

The title story brings back the splendid character Filth from her last novel. He’s approaching 90, a widower who’s retired to Dorset and misses the warm tropical rains of the Orient, where he practiced law for many years. Gardam brings us right inside the old man’s head: “He was cold and old. He was cold and old and going out to lunch with a woman called Dulcie he’d never much liked. His wife Betty had been dead some years.”

Despite the frigid rain, he walks on principle, determined to keep his legs in working order. He meets up with two old colleagues and former rivals, also headed to lunch at Privilege House on Privilege Road. Gardam economically paints a vivid, indelible portrait of the three men walking in the rain with their disparate umbrellas, each of which captures the personality of its bearer: “In single file the three old judges pressed ahead: black silk, apricot toile and a bundle of prongs.”

Many of the stories deal with eccentrics or eccentricities, and several end abruptly with sudden death. “The Latter Days of Mr. Jones” is a sad tale about an odd man whose peaceful dotage is shattered when he’s falsely accused at 83 of lechery. “Pangbourne” concerns an old woman who was hurt in love by “the Bounder” who left her, and transfers her affections – and her estate – to a gorilla at the local zoo.

Several stories involve women who cast their minds back to a mystery from the past that they are still unable to definitively resolve. In “The Milly Ming,” a 90-year-old living on the site of a former home for unmarried mothers for which she used to volunteer thinks she’s unearthed the reason Amelia Menzies opened the refuge back in 1899. In “The Last Reunion,” four women return to their 40th reunion because their college is about to close. Among them is smart, remarkable Elizabeth, who left abruptly at 19 to marry, not the Polish physicist she was dating but another man. Now sliding into Alzheimer’s, Elizabeth returns hoping to find her lost love, but unable to tell her friends why she left so suddenly all those years ago.

Whether considering a serendipitous encounter that saved a young man during the 1941 blitzkrieg, a widow reminiscing about her prickly daughter’s wedding 25 years earlier, or an unloved wife whose ankle and marriage both snap, heartbreakingly, when she finally risks venturing out of her cocoon, “The People on Privilege Hill” offers wise, mature, wry glimpses of an often unfathomable or vanishing, but invariably intriguing, world.

Heller McAlpin, a freelance critic in New York, is a frequent contributor to the Monitor’s book section.

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