Book Review: Troubles by JG Farrell

JG Farrell 
New York Review Books (Classics) 
July 2010


Never judge a book by its cover and be wary of judging it by its reviews — even this one. Given the title, Troubles, and given some reviews that I’d read, I was all prepared for a misery-fest and it took me a little while to realize that this is, in fact, a funny book. Yes, there’s a air of sadness running through it and there’s no happy ending; the tone is wry and the the humor is dry and biting, but it’s funny nonetheless. 

Set in the Troubles — the war of independence in Ireland 1919-1921 — the story limns the forces at work during the  social and political upheaval of the times. The fact that it was published in 1970 was almost bizarrely timely since events that would again be known as ‘The Troubles’ were erupting in Northern Ireland. 

Major Brendan Archer, recently demobbed from the British army after the First World War travels to Ireland to visit Angela, who over the course of a correspondence by letter has somehow become his fiancée. Not necessarily alarmed at such a prospect, though not particularly enthused either, it’s his hope to clear things up and do whatever needs to be done. When he arrives at The Majestic Hotel by the coast in Co. Wexford which is owned by Angela’s father, Edward Spencer, he finds the hotel rapidly falling into ruin and infested with cats. The human inhabitants are a group of superannuated old ladies, totally out of touch with the world outside. Edward Spencer, too, is almost completely out of touch as well. Imagining himself to be a kindly and generous landlord, he has no idea of the animus his mere presence arouses in the local populace nor does he seem to have a true grasp of the political forces shifting around him. As far as he’s concerned the ‘Shinners’ i.e. members or followers of Sinn Fein, are merely hooligans who have no appreciation of their betters and those who took part in the 1916 rebellion in Dublin are traitors who stabbed England in the back when it was distracted with fighting WWI. 

The book has a tone somewhere in between Gormanghast and P.G Wodehouse and always one seems to be waiting for someone to do something or for something to happen — an odd paralysis pervades, not unlike that in Joyce’s Dubliners

And yet, as John Banville notes in his introduction, this book is also a lament for the old Anglo-Irish Ascendency, whose energy and talent could have added so much to an Independent Ireland. The book is sympathetic to the emotions on both sides of the issue and quite tender in its dealings with the main characters. But as the book progresses a feeling of indolent tragedy rolls in like sick fog. There are love affairs that could have happened but didn’t, relationships that did happen but probably shouldn’t have and a great feeling of something that could have been magnificent, even majestic, falling into ruin. The book ends with these words: “But he was still troubled by thoughts of Sarah. His love for her perched inside of him, motionless, like a sick bird. For many weeks he continued to think about her painfully. And then one day, without warning, the bird left its perch inside him and flew away into the outer darkness and he was at peace. Yet many years later he would sometimes think of her. And once or twice he thought he glimpsed her in the street.”

The book was published in 1970, the year that rules of entry for the Booker Prize changed, thus making this book and others ineligible for consideration. To correct this the Booker committee in 2010 issued an award for the Lost Booker. This is the book that won. A little late for JG Farrell who drowned in1979 at the age of 44. 


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