Thursday, March 17, 2011

REVIEW: Troubles, by J.G. Farrell

Troubles, by J.G. Farrell. Originally published 1970; this edition 2002, by NYRB Classics.

A phenomenal work of literary fiction, J.G. Farrell's Troubles has long been hailed as his masterpiece; a change in the rules for Booker Prize eligibility kept it out of consideration at the time it was published but it was resurrected in 2008 and recognized with the Lost Man Booker Prize. (Off-topic, but I love that the Man Booker committee has been recognizing works with hindsight-prizes like this.)

Set in Kilnalough, Ireland, in 1921, in a dilapidated hotel among a motley cast of the equally dilapidated Anglo-Irish upper class, Troubles stars Major Brendan Archer, a veteran of the first World War and fiancé of the elusive Angela Spencer, daughter of the proprietor of the Majestic Hotel, Edward Spencer. The Majestic's name has taken on the quality of bitter irony as the hotel is literally falling to pieces around its owners and residents, a group of elderly ladies left stranded by their own declining fortunes. The Major (as is known throughout the book) arrives to find nothing as he expected. Angela is mysteriously ill, Edward is slowly going mad and the Major finds himself falling hard for caustic Sarah Devlin, who is, of all things, a Catholic.

The novel is on the longish side, and the action is quotidian and slow; there is no powerful central plot driving the narrative but rather a long series of little things- conversations, encounters, minutiae. The Major stays at the hotel for a time, goes away, comes back, and goes away again. Edward becomes increasingly paranoid about the social and political deterioration of British rule in Ireland, and about Sinn Fein (the "Shinners") aggression, and the threat moves closer to home when his son marries a Catholic and runs away. The narrative is punctuated with news items about the state of British rule in Ireland, India and elsewhere in the Empire to underline the sense of instability. Meanwhile, a colony of feral cats slowly takes over and the building continues to fall apart.

But don't think Troubles is just some grim, depressing book. Farrell's writing is razor-sharp and funny and note-perfect; if you like black humor, Troubles is the book for you. A little knowledge of the political situation in Ireland of the 1920s is helpful but not necessary. It reminded me a little of Guiseppe de Lampedusa's wonderful The Leopard, also about a society, and a social class, of the brink of transformation and the end of its useful life; both books culminate in a ball whose consequences echo through the lives of the characters. It's a richly satisfying, beautifully-written, smart, knowing work of historical fiction with just about everything going for it. Highly recommended for literary-fiction readers and readers with a strong interest in Ireland, it's a wonderful, wonderful novel.

Rating: BUY

This book counts towards the Ireland Reading Challenge 2011 and the 2011 Complete Booker Challenge.

I'm a Powell's partner and receive a small commission on sales.

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.


Sandy Nawrot said...

I had no idea that the Booker committee was unearthing unloved masterpieces! Bravo to them, even though I don't have a great track record with prize winners. And darnit, now I have that Ray LaMontagne stuck in my head!

bermudaonion said...

I do like some black humor, but know very little about Irish politics. I'm adding this to my "maybe" list.

Zibilee said...

I have had this book on my shelves for the longest time, and it's about time to dust it off and give it a go. It sounds just perfect, and like Sandy, I love the fact that it was recently recognized by the Booker committee. It sounds like a book I would really love. Thanks for the insightful and interesting review, Marie!

Anonymous said...

It sounds like a good read.

ImageNations said...

Interesting review. Sound Kafkaesque, like The Castle sort of. thanks

Kathleen said...

A "phenomenal work of literary fiction"? Say no more. This one is being added to the list.

Anonymous said...

Definitely another one to add to the to-read list!

Mel u said...

Given your love for Irish Lit

I would like to invite you to consider participating in

Irish Short Story Week-3/14 to 3/20

Anonymous said...

I've had Farrell on my list of must read authors for a while now. Thanks for the review.