Review 1742: The Man in the Wooden Hat

The Man in the Wooden Hat is the second novel in the Old Filth trilogy. Old Filth examines the entirety of the life of its main character, Edward Feathers, while this novel takes a closer look at his marriage with Betty. As with Old Filth, The Man in the Wooden Hat appears to be straightforward, but there is a kick at the end.

At the beginning of the novel, Eddie has sent a letter containing a marriage proposal to Betty, who is vacationing in Hong Kong while Eddie has been working in London. Betty accepts his proposal when he arrives in Hong Kong, where he makes only one condition, that Betty never leave him.

Only hours later, Betty meets Eddie’s rival, Terry Veneering, and falls immediately in love with him, although he is married with a son, Harry. She also falls in love with nine-year-old Harry. She is determined to marry Eddie; however, she spends a night with Terry before the wedding. Unfortunately, he leases a house for their rendezvous from Albert Ross, Eddie’s best friend, a Eurasian dwarf. Ross finds her purse there. He does not tell Eddie but returns the purse to Betty and tells him she must never leave Eddie. He knows of all the loss in Eddie’s life.

So begins their marriage. I did not dislike Betty despite her infidelity; in fact, I liked her, although it’s hard to decide what to think about Veneering. The novel follows the entirety of their marriage, which is reticent and notable for Eddie’s absences for work. Betty, who was born in China and subject as a child to detention by the Japanese, finds she cannot have children.

It’s hard to explain how this sort of everyday novel can be so absorbing. We think we know everything about the Featherses. But Gardam tilts everything slightly in the final chapter.

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Review 1633: The Distance Between Us

Jake, a Hong Kong Brit who has never been to Europe, is out with friends on Chinese New Year when they are caught in a crush. His girlfriend Melanie’s best friend is killed, and Melanie is gravely injured. Doctors say she will not live, so when she asks him to marry him, he reluctantly agrees even though he has only known her for four months. Of course, she does not die. The next thing he knows, he is in England staying at her parents’ house, and her mother is planning a formal ceremony for them. Having always wanted to find out about his Scottish father, he leaves for Scotland.

Stella’s too close relationship with her sister Nina is one she has to escape from sometimes. The roots of this lie in a horrible incident years ago. On one of her escapes, she takes a job at a hotel in Scotland.

This novel travels back and forth to relate incidents in both Jake and Stella’s lives and in the lives of their parents and grandparents. O’Farrell has a way with making you care about her characters as well as a gift for lyrical prose. This is another great book for her, and thus for her readers.

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Day 1203: The 1977 Club! The Honourable Schoolboy

Cover for The Honourable SchoolboyI actually read this novel before the 1977 Club was announced, but I was pleased to find that it was published in that year. I have a couple of other books I’m reviewing this week that I read especially for the club.

Here are my previous reviews of some other books published in 1977:

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I wasn’t aware that there was a sequel to John Le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy until I picked up The Honourable Schoolboy and started reading it. It is truly a worthy successor.

In summarizing the plot, I have to give away a key point of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but a point revealed toward the beginning of the novel. In that novel, of course, George Smiley uncovered a mole for the Russians high up in British intelligence. Because of the mole’s position, as The Honourable Schoolboy begins, all of the service’s spy networks are compromised and must be dismantled.

With a small staff of personnel who were dismissed during his predecessor’s reign, Smiley must figure out a way to make the service viable again. He has the idea that they can look for intelligence in the lacunae of his predecessor’s work, that is, look for promising leads that were suppressed.

1977 club logoThey find one, payments by the Russians to an account in Hong Kong, first small ones but later very large. Since the “spook house” in Hong Kong has been closed, Smiley recalls a journalist, an “occasional” agent, Jerry Westerby, from retirement in Tuscany to investigate this lead. A tangled path leads him from a Chinese businessman in Hong Kong to the man’s former prostitute English mistress, a Mexican drug courier in Vientiane, and some ugly dealings.

It is always amazing to me that Le Carré can evoke as much excitement from a paper chase as from an action sequence. Once again, he is in top form with a taut thriller. This novel is set against a backdrop of Southeast Asia exploding into chaos with the end of the Vietnam War. Westerby’s investigations take him to Hong Kong, Shanghai, Phnom Penh, Vientiane, and Saigon.

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