The Story of a Raj Orphan
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This book is the first book in a trilogy by Jane Gardam. To explain the title, FILTH is an acronym for Failed in London, Try Hong Kong. Sir Edward Feathers is the main character in the book. He has been a lawyer in Southeast Asia and a respected judge at the English bar. He is the one who “invented” the phrase and whose professional life is explained by the phrase.
The book moves back and forth in time from Eddie Feathers’ birth in Malaya to his retirement in Dorset. A defining feature of his life is that he is a “raj orphan.” Apparently, there are many books that explain this in more detail. Jane Gardam chose to believe I already knew about that part of history. I did not, but here is what I have learned. A raj orphan (also known as a child of the empire) was a child whose parents worked in a colony of the British Empire and chose to send their children back to the mother country to be brought up by relatives or even strangers.
As is the case with “foster care,” abuses may occur. In her research for the book, Gardam was inspired by the life of Rudyard Kipling, who was sent from his birthplace of India back to Britain. He wrote about it in the story, Baa Baa Black Sheep. And she said she couldn’t be in the same room with the book as it was horrifying.
In Eddie’s story, the horror is not clearly spelled out. In fact, we seem to get his whole life in shorthand. Here are some of the things we learn about him:
- His mother died days after he was born.
- He was raised by the daughter of his wet nurse in a happy setting.
- At the age of four-and-a-half, his father sent him to live with foster parents.
- Something terrible happened there.
- Because of all of this, Eddie has difficulty connecting with people.
- In spite of this, he has been happily married to Betty for decades.
- However, it is not a passionate relationship.
- Thus, she has a long-term affair with Terry Veneering, Eddie’s colleague/rival in court.
My telling of all this is almost as meager as the author’s, and therefore, I really didn’t care for the book. However, my opinion is suspect since the trilogy has been reviewed by major newspapers in the U.S. and the U.K. Not only are the reviews glowing, but each book was nominated for an award.
- Old Filth (2004) was a finalist for the Orange Prize.
- The Man in the Wooden Hat (2009) was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. It is the history of Eddie’s marriage as told from Betty’s point of view.
- Last Friends (2013) was a finalist for the Folio Award. It’s the story from Terry Veneering’s point of view.
Bottom line: If I were to do it over again, I’d start with Betty’s story and work out from there. And that’s my advice to you.
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