22 July 2010


I started reading Troubles when the shortlist for the "Lost" Man Booker Prize was announced in March.  The Siege of Krishnapur is on my longlist TBR as part of my Booker Project/Challenge but Troubles is the first book in JG Farrell's Empire trilogy so I was interested in reading Troubles before Siege (the final book is The Singapore Grip).

Conveniently for me, Troubles won the "Lost" Booker Prize so I got to read my first Booker winner of the year.

Troubles follows the story of Major Brendan Archer and his interaction with an Anglo-Irish family, the Spencers, at their decaying estate/hotel, the Majestic, around the beginning of the "Troubles" in Ireland.

("Troubles" is such an innocuous word, like a guerrilla-style war for Irish home-rule is the same as a bothersome neighbor who neglects to return the leaf blower.)

Archer comes to the Majestic to claim the hand of his fiancee, Angela Spencer, and winds up embroiled in the idiosyncratic way of life at the old estate.  It's a bit like a Waugh novel, the decaying Anglo-Irish aristocracy is a major focus of Troubles, combined with a Wodehouse farce - the cadre of elderly English maiden aunts and widows who permanently inhabit the Majestic lend a comic aspect to post-World War I/pre-civil war Ireland.  The rapidly multiplying horde of cats inhabiting the Majestic - they steadily take over the upper floors and varying rooms of the hotel causing guests to change rooms - are also a source of hilarity (to the reader) when the cats venture out to vex the hotel's human inhabitants.  Archer also becomes fascinated with the aloof Sarah Devlin, a resident of nearby Kilnalough, as the relationship between the English and the Irish rapidly deteriorates.

JG Farrell's writing is wonderful and very much worth savoring.  The majority of the plot in Troubles moves very slowly (the whole action of the book takes places over eighteen months to two years) so there is plenty of time for Farrell to develop the characters of Archer, Spencer, Ripon, Sarah, and all the others...only the expected character development doesn't seem to occur.  The only character we start to fully understand is the Major and we see all the other characters through his eyes; I really only recall one or two scenes where Archer is not present so it was so fun to read a book that really stayed with one character's perspective (the few point-of-view breaks were almost anecdotal in nature so they really didn't interrupt my reading).  Farrell even provides the reader with the newspaper articles Archer reads so we always stay with Archer's perspective and body of knowledge. 

If I didn't know Farrell wrote Troubles in the 1960s (a time where the "Troubles" were heating up in Ireland again) I would have thought the original publication was in the 1920s.  There is a very real-time feeling to the novel, the feeling of uncertainty, that you don't quite know who's a "Shinner" (Sinn Fein), if you will make it home to dinner in one piece.  That is the best kind of historical novel - when you can't tell the setting was reconstructed from research - and I love it.

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