Not surprisingly, this question is much on my mind these days, as once again, full of trepidation, hope, and anxiety, I venture forth on the strange journey that is a novel's publication. Various possible answers come to mind. Ads. Reviews. TV appearances. Having your wife leave you for Ted Turner. In the end, however, it seems to me that what really sells books in 2007 is what has sold books all along: word of mouth.
A case in point: Jane Gardam's remarkable novel Old Filth, published in 2006 by Europa Editions. The first person to recommend Old Filth to me was Beena Kamlani, one of the editors with whom I worked on The Indian Clerk and a wonderful writer in her own right. Then I ran into Sharon Lintz, a student in our MFA program here at the University of Florida, carrying around a dog-eared copy of Old Filth. (Sharon is a devoted reader of books published by Europa Editions and, like me, a fan of the late Patrick Hamilton, whose novels both Europa and New York Review Books are reissuing.) It was Sharon who explained to me that the "Filth" of the title was an acronymic joke name for the hero. It stands for: "Failed in London, Try Hong Kong."
The hero of Old Filth is a "Raj orphan." Born in Malaya, where his father is a provincial officer of the British Empire, Edward Feathers leads an idyllic childhood in the care of his Malayan nanny until he is sent back to England to be educated. After a traumatic few months in Wales, Feathers enters the British educational system from which he will emerge a Hong Kong barrister and, eventually, an uneasy retiree living in Dorset. Yet what is compelling about Old Filth is not just the story itself: it's the fractured storytelling, the jumps back and forth from Filth's childhood to his prime to his crotchety old age. Like Joanna Scott, Gardam is a genius at fracturing narrative.
Gardam is in her seventies and lives in England. She has published fifteen works of fiction, along with several children's books. Now the creator of TEV tells me that Europa Editions has just reissued another of her novels, The Queen of the Tambourine . Perhaps a career renaissance is about to take place, akin to the huge reawakening of interest, a decade ago, in the work of Penelope Fitzgerald.