Over the past few years, Europa Editions has been republishing Jane Gardam’s novels in a bid to bring this prodigious British author the broader audience she deserves.
To a roster that includes such fine novels as “Old Filth” and “Flight of the Maidens,” Europa now adds the wonderful, sharply observed, deeply funny “Faith Fox.”
Although she’s at the very center of this novel, setting its many stories in motion, the title character is a cipher, necessarily so: She’s a baby.
Her mother, the jolly, seemingly indestructible Holly, died in childbirth. The ensuing grief has so undone Holly’s mother, Thomasina, that, rather than meet her grandchild, she runs off to Egypt with an unlikely but handy old general, Giles. And because the baby’s father, Andrew, an overworked young doctor, proves hopeless when it comes to vetting nannies, Faith somehow ends up in the care of Thomasina’s old friend Pammie, who clearly can’t keep her.
Thus Pammie and Andrew find themselves venturing north from refined London, across great divides of custom and class, to deliver Faith to Andrew’s much older brother, Jack, at the Priors, the makeshift religious commune that he vaguely but devoutly oversees with his exotic, ex-hippie wife, Jocasta, and her sweet, oft-overlooked 11-year-old son, Philip.
Also in attendance at the Priors are a curious cast of Tibetan exiles; a couple of bickering, strangely lovable toughs called the Smikes; and the Missus, a cantankerous housekeeper obsessively devoted to Jack. Somewhere nearby are Faith’s paternal grandparents, the devoted, not-quite-doddering Toots and Dolly, who’ve yet to lay eyes on their grandchild.
Throw into the mix Toots and Dolly’s officious neighbor, Mrs. Middleditch; Madeleine, a dotty old lady who attaches herself to Giles; and Pema, the ancient Tibetan who takes a proprietary interest in Faith — and you have the makings of a comedy of manners that reads now and then like an Oscar Wilde cover of Thomas Hardy’s material.
With Holly’s funeral on one end and a Christmas christening for Faith on the other, the plot is propelled by contingencies, traveling with one character until a chance encounter or event steers it into another’s story.
As serious as it is silly, the novel treats its collection of oddballs with an amused tenderness, revealing in the often hilarious dilemmas of the old and young, pious and skeptical, sophisticated and simple, a profound and complex sympathy.
Ellen Akins is a writer in Wisconsin. Online at www.ellenakins.com
By: Jane Gardam.
Publisher: Europa Editions, 384 pages, $18.