Hephzibah Anderson's paperback of the week.
Tales from a filthy old man
The People on Privilege Hill Jane Gardam Vintage Dh58 Jane Gardam's last novel, Old Filth, was packed with economical, quietly elegiac reflections on ageing, memory and the passing of Empire. It centred on a splendidly curmudgeonly old judge, Sir Edward Feathers, whose nickname, Filth, stood for "Failed In London Try Hong Kong". Having done exactly that and succeeded with great aplomb, he retired to the English countryside, a stranger in his own land after so many decades spent living in the Far East.
Filth, nearing 90, makes a stylish return in the title story of this new collection. As it opens, he is gazing out of the window at "drenching, soaking, relentless rain," pining for the warm oriental drizzle of his past. Be that as he may, he must venture out to a lunch party at the home of Dulcie, an uppity widow who lives on nearby Privilege Hill. Around the table sits her American grandson, two elderly sisters who sing in the church choir and are known as "the heavenly twins," and their leggy, chain-smoking Lithuanian carer. Its eclectic cast is typical of the tales that follow. Its drama is impressionistic, illustrating the dilemmas and irritations of people whose age permits them to think in a kind of shorthand, and whose days are lived partly in the fog of the past.
Most distinctive of all is Gardam's prose: agile and colourful - tender, too, and just a touch surreal. Here she is on the guests' umbrellas, for instance: "six or so of them seemed to stir, rubbing shoulders like impounded cattle". The sheer oddness of the image cloaks a striking truth: those ungainly brollies are a bit like cows - restive, at once bulky and spindly-legged. In other stories, a harmless old gent finds himself the victim of a paedophile witchhunt and an 18-year-old boy is stranded for the night in Blitz era London, where the air shivers with sirens that ring out "like wolves across snow".
Babette tells of a book critic who is summoned by an author long believed dead. "I want to give you a present," declares the eponymous writer, "a creature of tatters and wisps, in a long coat and a none-too-clean balaclava helmet." It turns out to be a Victorian cast-iron bathtub, later responsible for the story's macabre end. In Pangbourne, a woman trapped in a miserable marriage with a man who wed her for her money falls in love with a gorilla at the local zoo. "You've got gorilla's hands" yells her husband, high-tailing it after she wills her entire estate to her hairy new sweetheart.
This is Gardam's 16th book of fiction and many of its protagonists are women in their twilight years, edging through days crowded with memories. Eleanor reminisces about her daughter's bridal tantrums and Mrs Ainsley recalls an encounter with a surly single mother. In Dangers, six-year-old Jake is taken on a trip across the Atlantic from his Boston home to England, where his granny lives down a country lane with rabbits and pheasants. Out on a walk he discovers a rusty old arrow, which he later hurls away. Something will grow from it, granny tells him, "maybe a story".
If these women regret anything as they look back, it is the sheer blamelessness of their lives. "Oh, we were so good!" laments Lily, one of four no-longer-young graduates who gather to salute the closure of their all-girls alma mater in The Last Reunion. From this potentially gloomy territory, Gardam has hewn stories of memorable magic, proving herself a writer so skilled that even the slightest works in this collection scintillate with sly wit.