Courtney H.'s Reviews > Troubles

Troubles by J.G. Farrell
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's review
Feb 26, 2012

it was amazing
bookshelves: bookers
Read in September, 2011

Before I hit up Siege of Krishnapur, I figured I'd get to Troubles, winner of the lost Booker and one of two J.G. Farrell wins (the Siege being the other, obviously). Troubles takes place largely in Ireland, in 1919, in a decaying hotel that largely cloistered itself from the chaos of the revolution happening around its walls. Of course, to cloister oneself off from that kind of chaos requires an enormous obliviousness of the Spencer family, who owned the hotel; and that obliviousness was a major reason that the Majestic Hotel fell from its place as a five star hotel for the upper class to a decrepit shadow of its former self, overrun by cats.

Farrell did an amazing job at inserting the mounting storm into the crevices of the story while focusing on the rich details of the crumbling Majestic. The book is a stark indictment of British colonialism -- its ineffectiveness, its follies, its stupid, oblivious, yet thoroughly intentionally racism and violence that begot so much violence -- and yet Farrell succeeds because he does not beat you over the head with this indictment. The power is in the unraveling of the Majestic and in the unraveling of Major Archer, the protagonist of the story. He came over from England because he found himself engaged to Angela Spencer, a girl he met once and whose father owned the Majestic. He began by bemusedly watching the cast of characters -- Angela; her father; her younger sisters; the old women former socialites who refused to give up their rooms at the Majestic; Sarah Devlin, a Catholic girl he became fixated on; and a host of characters from the hotel, the town, and the occupying British army -- and by watching the mismanagement of the already dilapidated hotel. Yet he himself was stalled: unable to leave, unable to avoid returning when he finally did leave; sure he might help improve things but in the end, entirely helpless himself. He was no better than the cast of characters he watched. The hotel and its declined lived in its absurd details -- the cats that swarmed the house; the decay even of Spencer's dogs; that horrible chicken that hung around the one dog's neck; the shrubbery taking over entire rooms of the hotel; the party intended to herald the old days and instead signaled its demise; and then that scene at the beach at the end. Not to give too many spoilers, but you'll know it when you see it. Indeed, even the Majestic's sign, the statute on the lawn -- they all lend depth to this space in time, which sat, soggy and sluggish as the maelstrom enveloped it.

I've heard of books that were both comedic and sad and have found it a difficult balance to hit, but Farrell did it, with this and with Siege. It didn't have individually funny lines, but it set scenes that were both hilarious and deeply sad. It isn't as simple as a book about good intentions gone awry, but rather thoughtless intentions of people who were so sure they were right, and who were too obtuse to see the mess they made, or to even realize when it is time to leave. The fogginess of their own awareness, of the war that England just emerged from in Europe and of the war they were waging in Ireland, colors each scene of the book. And around them the colonial empire decayed as well. At times, the hotel and the characters flex their muscles and then it falls back: other forces will overwhelm it and the hotel and its characters watch agape.

The book is both deeply detailed and entirely surreal. The book is odd and off-kilter: from the engagement that barely was, to the story arc of Sarah Devlin, to the cats, to the old women of stature and poverty. It is the details that make it surreal, that help you float with Archer through this whimsical place that improbably exists -- and which shouldn't exist, given the actual war being waged by people who had every right to be furious at the colonizing invaders who built the hotel and who far outstayed whatever welcome they ever might have had; and who failed utterly at doing anything to deserve a welcome. It is the comedy of those characters, played out as the hotel crumbles and the country devolves further into an encroaching chaos, that sells the surrealness and tragedy of the story.

I'm frustrated at this review because I am not doing justice to Troubles, and I'm sure in my next review I won't do justice to Siege of Krishnapur. I've tried to talk about these books a few times, but the words elude me. Takes a better critic than me, that is for sure. All I can say is that I highly recommend this book, which was so very deserving of that lost Booker Prize.
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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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Lawrence Windrush A very perceptive review

Lawrence Windrush In fact it's one of the best reviews if the novel I have ever read.

Courtney H. Thank you so much!

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