The Man in the Wooden Hat

Tessa Hadley writes:

These novels are distinctively Gardam’s, with her usual proliferation of plotlines and headlong, swerving delivery. Her bold sentences are a pleasure, leaping ahead of the reader, who learns not to lumber behind. But the novels also belong to an important tradition of English writers, mostly women – Elizabeth Bowen and Elizabeth Taylor and Rumer Godden and Penelope Fitzgerald among them – whose subject is the old world of class and empire, and the systems of education and intricate cultural codes that supported it. Sharing that world’s know-how, vigilant over its precise local expertise, these writers nonetheless never quite belong with both feet inside it, or quite participate in its whole power; they survey it from a position sanely detached, defined by irony. They find that freedom perhaps because they’re Anglo-Irish, or Anglo-Indian, or penniless, or from the north (a significant marker for Gardam), perhaps simply because they’re women. They relish the framework that the codes give (‘life with the lid on’, in Bowen’s phrase), and do justice to the best that these embodied, but never forget the inequity, or the costs of forcing life into rigid forms.

(LRB 11 March 2010)

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