That crusty retired lawyer stewing over a commotion in his neighbor’s cottage in southwest England isn’t who he seems to be: Jane Gardam’s 24th novel, The Man In The Wooden Hat, tracks backward from a scene of apparent domestic bliss interrupted (Edward Feathers’ wife Elisabeth has just died) to deliver a fine-tuned portrait of an unconventional marriage with its roots in the far reaches of the dying British Empire.
On a case in Singapore, Malaysia-born boarding-school orphan Edward, known as “Filth” (Failed In London, Try Hong Kong, a reference to his undistinguished early career), meets Elisabeth Mackintosh, a Scottish Tianjin-born survivor of the World War II Japanese internment camps where she lost both her parents. Their uncomfortable engagement after he proposes to her via a letter becomes a companionable but unaffectionate marriage, from an Indian honeymoon to their late-life move to the kind of British country village they once dreaded. Left alone during Edward’s prolonged trials and unable to have children, Elisabeth tries to mold herself into the English gentlewoman her mother was in post-Blitz London and pre-Handover Hong Kong, while contemplating an affair with Edward’s chief rival and caring for his lonely son.
Much as Edward couches his choice of bride in terms of passion, he and Elisabeth, whose memories of family are either angry or tragic, vow themselves into a practical union where love enters later. Gardam’s 2004 novel Old Filth probed Edward’s background from the view of his retirement, but The Man In The Wooden Hat is less interested in Elisabeth’s past (tantalizing hints of which are never filled out here) than in her sodden determination not to let anyone, least of all her husband, see through her learned poise. (On her honeymoon, she writes to a friend, “The fact that I’ll never really crack Eddie in a way gives me a freedom… This must be how to make marriage work.”)
Neither spouse is truly likeable, but Gardam unwinds from their shared life a fascinating exploration of the end of the British Empire and how it secures or imprisons them in marriage. Unwilling to either go native or settle comfortably in London, Edward and Elisabeth turn to work and passion to fill their days, relying on each other more than they dared admit. The Man In The Wooden Hat casts a cold, unsentimental eye on their decisions throughout their lives, but it feels like a breath of fresh air.