Arcadius's Reviews > Troubles

Troubles by J.G. Farrell
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Oct 11, 2011

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bookshelves: b-anglosphere
Read in August, 2011

As a big fan of the two later books in JG Farrell's Empire trilogy, I began this one with enthusiasm and very high expectations. And for the first 100 pages or so, all went well. There was the same long, slow build-up and growing sense of foreboding, and I thought we were on familiar territory. Unfortunately, at the same time as the shit really starts hitting the fan, the novel goes flat. The only real linkage between the crumbling of British rule in Ireland and the crumbling of the Majestic Hotel is metaphorical. External events fail to drive either the narrative or character development, and we are stuck with people whose response to the gathering crisis in Ireland is largely confined to tut-tutting over their newspapers.

If the characters could make their own weather, this wouldn't matter too much, but this lot are too passive to make anything happen by themselves. And I think the essential problem is Major Archer, the key character through whose eyes we view the entire action (such as it is). A parody of wishy-washy, vaguely well-meaning, utterly ineffectual English liberalism, the Major only turns up in Ireland in the first place to find out whether he has got himself engaged to the daughter of the house. He doesn't know. And even if he did get engaged, it was only because he felt he needed some sort of reason to survive the Great War. No other motive seems to have occured to him.

The death of his uncertain fiancee relieves the Major of his quandary, and also of any plausible reason for remaining in Ireland. He is held back by his tepid attraction to a local Catholic girl, whom he unsuccessfully pursues with characteristic lack of conviction. Meanwhile, he frets uselessly about the ever-worsening political situation, wishing vaguely that everybody could be... well, you know, a bit more reasonable. Eventually (and unaccountably), he feels obligated to take over the running of the hotel in its final decline as the mental state of its owner Edward (father of the defunct fiancee) deteriorates. And at least to the little old ladies who are the last inhabitants of the place, he seems a tower of strength.

Presumably the Major is meant to symbolise a British ruling class which has had the moral stuffing knocked out of it by WW1, and which can no longer muster the ruthlessness and drive to hold onto its empire. That's fine, except that Farrell lands himself with a central character who is far too anaemic to carry a novel of this length. It's a pity there wasn't more focus on Edward, who is not only a much stronger and more vibrant character in his own right, but who - as a fully paid-up member of the Anglo-Irish ascendancy - has good reason to be where he is and a strong vested interest in the outcome of the external crisis. The Major is really just a detached outside observer - a glorified tourist with too much time on his hands.

Troubles is not devoid of merit, and I'm not going to dismiss it with 2 stars just because my sky-high expectations were disappointed. Farrell writes superbly, and some of the set pieces at which he excels (the Majestic's last ball, for example) are magnificent. Some of the subordinate characters (the twins, the love-interest Sarah, one or two of the old biddies) are entertaining and well drawn, and I wish we could have had more of them. Having slowed to a crawl in the overlong central section, the pace does pick up in the final 100 pages, and in the end I felt that there were enough good things in the novel for it to pass muster. Even so, imho 'Troubles' is not a patch on either 'The Siege of Krishnapur' or 'The Singapore Grip', and I suspect Farrell was still feeling his way towards a formula he was later to bring off with much greater aplomb. How sad that he died so soon after hitting his stride.
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