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[264] The Man in the Wooden Hat – Jane Gardam

” She had never seen Edward’s part of London. She had never seen him in a house at all. Always it had been hotels and restaurants. She had no idea what his maisonette in Pimlico would be like, and still less now they had drawn up outside it in thick fog. She had always been with him in sunlight. ” [104]

Other than thinking of her as “a glass of water in a Scottish burn,” and her regarding him “very nice, very nice . . . and he needs me,” Edward Feathers and Elizabeth Macintosh practically know nothing about each other. They’re literally in thick fog. They meet in Hong Kong after World War II, where feather, a.k.a. Old Filth (Failed In London Try Hong Kong) practices as a barrister. Elizabeth is a Scottish woman born in China; she grew up in the war in Shanghai and became orphaned. The union is totally out of convenience–and they do take one another for granted. Can we blame Macintosh’s eagerness for stability after a tenure in detention camp, even though she marries someone she hardly knows?

Tears began to come down. She knew that it was love that was missing. Edward was missing. She had forgotten all about him. Put him ruthlessly into memory. [67]

Although she feels honor-bond not to desert the insecure Filth after her tête-à-tête with Veneering, through whom she feels all the passion she lacks for Edward, she is eternally haunted by what might have been. She perpetrates double betrayal—with Veneering’s being Filth’s rival in court. After a miscarriage, she devotes to a domesticity that is free of romance, and by chance cultivates a mother-and-son relationship with Veneering’s half-Chinese son Harry.

Jane Gardam’s prose is economical, and at times lacking depth, especially when narrative forays into a conversation in the head. The many coincidences only compound the irony in life and the loneliness of being trapped in a liaison that was made possible by impulse. The Man in the Wooden Hat is a charming tale of bittersweet secrets and the surprising fulfillment of the reunion of a couple who lived in the heyday of the British Empire and to the amused indifference of Chinese in Hong Kong.

You get lonely here, you know. It’s not that they dislike you, so much as that they aren’t interested. They just blot you out. Just occasionally they make it plain. You can be sitting on a bus with the only empty seat the one beside you, and there’ll be Chinese standing thick down the middle of the bus all down the centre aisle, and there’ll never, ever, be one of them who sit down beside you. We are invisible. [67]

So right on, capturing the psyche of the people of the former British colony.

233 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]