The bad news: if you have a less than comprehensive knowledge of British history and culture (as I do), you may have to run to Google periodically to understand all the acronyms and historical references in Gardam’s novel. The good news: it won’t matter. Gardam’s book is primarily a character study, the affectionate chronicle of a long marriage between two flawed but lovable characters.
Edward Feathers, QC (Queen’s Counsel) is a prominent lawyer working in Hong Kong, who falls in love with Elisabeth (Betty) Macintosh, a former captive of a Japanese Internment Camp in Shanghai; her British parents died in the camp. Edward was a Raj orphan (a term for British children whose parents, working in places such as India and Malaysia, sent their children back to England to be raised by relatives or boarding schools – thank you, Google). Edward proposes to Betty, who is torn; Edward’s wealth and good looks are appealing, but she barely knows him, and feels no great passion for him. His greatest appeal to Betty: he needs her. Edward is still at heart an abandoned Raj orphan who is terrified at the idea of being left again.
Just an hour after Betty accepts Edward’s proposal and swears to never leave him, she meets his arch courtroom rival Terry Veneering at a party. The instant she meets him, Betty muses: “And it is just one hour too late.” She also meets his young son, Harry, and they form a quick bond, so quick that later that evening, when she hears of an airplane full of schoolchildren that has crashed, she panics (Harry was supposed to fly back to England that evening) and runs to see Veneering. Harry is fine – he missed the flight – but this encounter leads to a romantic tryst between Betty and Veneering, virtually on the eve of her marriage to Edward.
The rest of the book tells the story of Betty and Edward’s long marriage. To Betty’s surprise, she comes to truly love Edward, despite his inability to express his feelings, and her lack of passion for him. When she suffers a miscarriage, followed by a hysterectomy, Betty’s attachment to Harry Veneering becomes stronger than ever; though she rarely sees him, she thinks of him as her son.
This is not a plot-driven book. Betty never leaves Edward for Veneering; Edward’s career never falters. It is mainly Betty’s story, the story of a woman who is torn between two men, between two cultures, between love and passion. Her search for identity is paralleled by the historical changes in her adopted country of Hong Kong, and the theme of British colonization figures prominently throughout the novel. Betty loves the East, but can’t forget what happened to her parents there. In the end she becomes her mother, a proper British lady, cherishing her memory of her passion for Veneering and her bond with Harry.
Betty is a rich, complex character, a free spirit with an irreverent wit and a bit of a split personality, the legacy of her years in Shanghai and Hong Kong. Edward, too, is no stock Englishman, but a fragile and endearing soul. The reader gets the feeling that there is a lot of Edward’s story left out of the book, probably due to the fact that Edward has his own book, Gardam’s previous novel, titled Old Filth (Edward’s nickname, an acronym for Failed In London Try Hong Kong).
Gardam’s writing style is economical, sometimes to the point of terseness. For example: “She heard laughter. Cheerful shouting. English laughter and across the terrace saw Eddie’s legal team all drinking Tiger beer. There were six or seven of them in shirts and shorts, and Edward standing tall among them without a tie, head back, roaring with laughter.”
Edward and Betty are supported by a Dickensian cast of characters: a dwarf, a married couple of actors (the husband only plays butlers), a missionary couple with a brood of children and a perpetually depressed houseguest. The story is peppered throughout with Gardam’s dry English wit, as in this description of Edward’s briefcases: “It was the class of luggage that would grow old along with its owner as he became Queen’s Counsel, Judge, High Court Judge, perhaps Lord of Appeal in Ordinary, even Queen’s Remembrancer, and possibly God.”
Gardam’s novel satisfies that ultimate test of character-driven works: when it’s over, you will miss Betty. I do.