Tuesday, April 1, 2014
Review: THE SIEGE OF KRISHNAPUR, by J. G. Farrell
The Siege of Krishnapur is the second in J.G. Farrell's Empire Trilogy, a series of stand-alone novels (a contradiction in terms) about British imperialism in different parts of the world. Singapore and Ireland star in the other two; The Siege of Krishnapur takes place in India, in a remote, fictional outpost affected as part of the very real 1857 Indian Rebellion, or First War of Independence, depending on who you ask. Farrell's book exposes the evils and absurdities of colonialism and sheds light on the politics of his day as well.
The story takes place virtually entirely among a set of Victorian English people who are settled in the fictional town when it comes under siege. First we are treated to some exposition on the characters and internal politics. Fleury is a feckless Englishman recently arrived with his sister Miriam and in love with upper-class Louise. A young woman named Lucy, who has been sexually assaulted, finds herself a pariah according to Victorian mores and her compatriots wish she would just sort of go away, but she has an unsettling joie de vivre nonetheless. When the siege begins, all of the English people find themselves having to work together to survive but as conditions deteriorate cracks and fissures threaten to break their unity.
The Siege of Krishnapur is considered a classic, having won the Booker Prize in 1973 and shortlisted for the Best of the Booker, awarded to Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children in 2009. I enjoyed the book; Farrell's writing is dense and detailed and full of black comedy and wonderful human touches. I found it a little hard to follow at times though and didn't quite get what all of the characters were supposed to be doing. I enjoyed the conflict between the two doctors over the right way to treat cholera though the resolution depended on someone dying, the comedy undercut with tragedy.
On balance I'd recommend The Siege of Krishnapur most to Booker completeists. I know how much the book is respected but like many of the early winners it felt dated and a little dull to me. I found the ending to be touching and worth the effort it took to get there, but it did take some effort. If you want to read a classic about colonialism it's certainly one to seek out.
FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.