Thursday, March 17, 2011

Marie's Review- Troubles, by J.G. Farrell

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

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 heretofore unrecognized 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.

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