26 of 26 people found the following review helpful
on 13 November 2008
Another wonderful book by Farrell. This time we are Singapore upon whose shores the Second World War is about to reach. We see the usual collection of eccentric colonials and witness their social dealings. Whilst the rest of the Empire battled the Germans and Japanese, in Singapore fortunes are to be made and daughters to be married off. Farrell has created a wonderful host of characters who often discuss the weightiest of matters in the most perilous situations. Thus not only are we treated to reading about them putting out incendiary bombs but we have them discussing the betterment of man whilst they do it. As with Farrell's other novels the book is wonderfully funny, this one is however tinged with sadness. The injustice of Empire is more apparent and the motives of the people whose stories we witness are much crasser than in his other books. This, as with all of Farrell's books is a must read.
15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on 23 August 2008
This was much more of an epic than I expected. Nearest comparison I can think of is Olivia Manning's "Fortunes Of War" (Balkan and Levant trilogies), with a dash of Paul Scott (Raj quartet) and Evelyn Waugh (Sword Of Honour).
By turns serious and satirical, it recounts the inexorable decline of the ex-pat British colonial community in Malaya, as the imperial Japanese storm gathers, bursts, and ultimately destroys their apparently invunerable world of privilege.
Although parts of the book are slow (but often funny), it is never less than absorbing, and builds to a gripping and moving climax, which I found utterly unputdownable.
Sadly, this was to be Farrell's last book, as he died shortly after completing it.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
A really fine novel by the superb British writer, J.G. Farrell. I got this title because of the overwhelmingly favorable Amazon reviews (hats off to those who praised the book in this forum) and because of my own positive experience with one of Farrell's other sagas of British colonialism, "The Siege of Krishnapur".
"The Singapore Grip" is a social satire as incisive and entertaining as some of Evelyn Waugh's better books and certainly as good in capturing the cracks in the facade of empire building and maintenance. The story opens in the late 1930s with an unsparing look at the British business community which was running the Malaya/Burma/Singapore branches of the colonial empire, focused entirely on the maximum exploitation of the natural resources of those territories on behalf of the metropole and very much at the expense of the native populations. That ruthless selfish behavior is boasted of and lionized by "...Grip's" business characters. The same characters speak of the "virtues" of classism, racism, anti-intellectualism, anti-humanism--and the list goes on. Entering the scene is the scion of an important Singapore business family who is a relative naif to all of this, having labored fruitlessly for a number of years for the League of Nations. He becomes the ineffective critic of all the much prized bad behavior of his peers, but also a bridge to the local native population and hence to some kind of sanity and humaness.
While the war of manners goes on and economic exploitation continues unabated, the Japanese are closing in the colonial territories. Ignored and then denigrated as a military force until they invade Malaya through friendly Thailand, the Japanese Army is soon pounding down the Malay peninsula toward the stronghold of Singapore. The rest of the story includes some amazingly good accounts of infantry and tank battles, military strategy and tactical bungling and, eventually, the disintegration of Singapore's defenses and the fall of the city. The reaction of the besieged population to the attacks on the city is rather brilliantly imagined and told. There are some comeuppances doled out here, but not nearly in the amounts merited. The author's message being that life is never fair and the weak will always be at a disadvantage in the face of adversity.
These few paragraphs don't come close to doing justice to this extremely skillful and engrossing story that has a terrific storyline and plot (mostly following the true line of history) and brilliantly sketched characters who are mostly flawed but all accurately reflecting their time and place. A wonderful read by a very talented writer.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on 6 March 2011
This is a substantial and remarkable book in which Farrell documents the colonial years just before, and during the Japanese invasion of Singapore.
Rich in characters and full of colour and texture, he describes the life and times of the Patriarch of one of the old rubber firms, and his aspirations for the next generation. Progressively, his world falls apart - as the business seems to have missed major opportunities, but then the war takes over, and all else is unreal. The new generation fails to conform to his wishes, as the world is rapidly turned upside down.
Most of the action is described from the points of view of the two main characters, Walter and Matthew Blackett; it is their lives and hopes that are explored - both rich in reminiscence and dreams.
The amazing variety in Malaya and Singapore is vividly brought to life through the various social groupings from the comfortable colonials, and the military clubs, to the sordid Chinese "dying house", and the tenements. Each scenario is accompanied by the characters appropriate to each, increasingly intermingling as the war proceeds and forces all the races and social classes together.
At the end the Europeans are separated out and taken to Changi, and on the way they are jeered at by some Indian shopkeepers -reminding Matthew of the King Williams response to a boatman who asks "who won the battle?" - he replied "what is it to you, you will still be the boatman".
Finally, there is some hope - Matthew receives an indication that his Chinese friend, Vera, is still there somewhere, and Walter's daughter, Kate is shown in a tantalisingly "possible" scenario in her middle age in 1976 married to someone - possibly the American Ehrendorf - in her Chelsea home.
Extensively researched, beautifully written, and skilfully crafted.
30 of 32 people found the following review helpful
on 13 March 2006
I don't recognise the book that Michael Kalk describes. Every one of Farrell's characters comes to life on the page. And though the book is long, it's never boring - it immerses you in colonial Singapore on the cusp of the Japanese invasion. As usual with Farrell, the narrative is threaded through with dark humour - right down to the title. When you find out what 'Singapore grip' means, you'll think twice about asking for it by name at your local bookshop.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on 10 October 2011
An engrossing book, if a little long-winded from time to time. This was probably due to the author's enthusiasm, no to be doubted, having got the better of him. An interesting blend of fact and fiction. If one is interested to follow-on from where The Singapore Grip leaves off, Sinister Twilight by Noel Barber is an excellent factual account.
I am familiar with SE Asia, but I think many who are not would better understand the geography of the Japanese invasion of the region and the British defence, by having a small map in the front of the book. I often think that about books where geography is important to the narrative.
I was distracted by Farrell's preoccupation with the word "presently" which sometimes appears twice on a page. Odd for someone so obviously objective otherwise.
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
When the Japanese invaded China in 1937 and French Indo-China in 1941, the handwriting was on the wall for the colony of Singapore, one of Great Britain's most important military and economic centers. Hubris, and the sense that their military power was vastly superior to any other in the world, however, led to Britain's lack of military preparedness and the astonishingly quick takeover of Malaya and Singapore by the Japanese in 1942, handing the British what Winston Churchill called "the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history." Author J. G. Farrell recreates these traumatic days in Singapore as the final novel in his "Empire Trilogy," which, like Troubles and The Siege of Krishnapur, combines Farrell's cynicism, black humor, and sense of absurdity with his uncompromising honesty about colonialism--Britain's greed, its colonial "mission," and its cruelty toward its "subjects."
The venerable Singapore merchant firm of Blackett and Webb and its principals come vibrantly alive here as they deal with continuing strikes, unrest in rural areas, challenges to the government by the communists, and an influx of immigrants from other countries. The outbreak of war in Europe has made the demand for Blackett and Webb's rubber supplies a high priority for Britain's military cars and planes, and Blackett and Webb are poised to capitalize by manipulating prices, withholding product, and evading the law. Associating with generals, the leaders of society, and local governors, the company's representatives are busy planning an elaborate jubilee celebration. Even as the Japanese are attacking from the north, Walter Blackett continues with the planned celebration.
Farrell has obviously spent a great deal of time researching not only the actions of the military and diplomatic corps from several countries, but also determining the personalities of the British characters (real) who act within the novel. Air Chief-Marshall Sir Robert Brooke-Popham and Lt. Gen. Arthur Percival have innumerable scenes which establish their attitudes and explain their actions--and inactions. In a surprise, Farrell also includes scenes in which the Japanese reveal their own points of view as officers Kikuchi, Matsushida, and his assistant Nakamura, prepare for the battle for Singapore.
Farrell handles innumerable plot lines (and battle lines) with assurance and historical accuracy, illustrating the reality of history within the everyday lives of the merchant princes of Singapore. As the Japanese come closer to attacking Singapore, the reader is stunned by some of the reactions of the British community, concerned primarily that "the dignity of the British Government is at stake," not with the real lives that are threatened. As Singapore falls, the horrors are dramatic, revealing the inner resources--or lack thereof--of all the main characters, and as these escape--or fail to escape--Farrell has educated his readers so well that it is difficult to decide whether to be glad or sad about the fates of the characters we have followed for five hundred pages. Ultimately, Farrell's own opinions in favor of a forward-thinking world view shine through brightly, in stark contrast to those of his main characters. Mary Whipple
Troubles: (New York Review Books Classics)
The Siege of Krishnapur (New York Review Books Classics)
29 of 32 people found the following review helpful
on 15 August 2000
15 August 2000
I SIMPLY CANNOT RECOMMEND THIS WONDERFUL STORY HIGHLY ENOUGH. I bought it purely on 'spec' as I was hunting around Amazon for any book on Singapore or the Far East (I was in a nostalgic mood for the exotic orient - probably our lousy summer weather here in the Uk did it). This book turned out to be an absolute treasure - Singapore in the last months before the fall to the Japanese is brought to life with remarkable vividness and the most loving detail. This is a truly compelling tale, by turns deeply poignant, hilarious, slap-stick, and bitterly ironic. Draped everywhere are succulent vignettes of colonial life and English eccentricity, all set against the dramatic, vast, dark tableau of the looming war in South-east Asia. It is a very clever and cleverly told story too. But the characters are the real strength here - it is a real ensemble piece, with a large and varied cast of 'players', and they are all so fascinating and three-dimensional you will find yourself completely captivated as you follow their progress and adventures, and watch them interact. An atmospheric, evocative, pungent, compelling, spell-binding book, perfect for tucking up in bed with on a cold rainy night, which will utterly absorb you into its streets and settings. I EXHORT YOU to order this book. J.G. Farrell was unknown to me before I stumbled across this book here at Amazon, and now I shall be ordering a couple more of his books next. The Singapore Grip is supposedly one of three books by Farrell referred to by critics as Farrell's 'Empire Trilogy' - guess what I'm ordering next!
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Like the other two novels in Farrell's 'Empire' trilogy, 'The Singapore Grip' is a funny, easy-to-read and slightly farcical story about British colonialism. Alongside the laughs though, there is a more biting critique of the behaviour or British and other colonial powers, and the tragedy wrought by the Second World War. Farrell's depiction of the descent into war is all the more powerful because he lulls the reader into a false sense of security, much as the characters themselves feel. You enter a world of social gaffes and fairly harmless buffoons, laughing even as you cringe at their faux pas and lack of self awareness. Just as you've settled yourself into a humorous account of upper class fools, suddenly the dark shadow of war arrives. It makes the deterioration of the situation for the characters, and the destruction that results, shocking and heartbreaking - even though as a modern reader you know it is coming.
The novel is technically the last of three, but they are loosely linked only and you could read them comfortably out of order. Fans of 'Troubles' will be pleased to hear that the wonderful Major Archer, the protagonist of that novel, is also a major character in this book. Archer represents what could be considered about old fashioned 'British values' - decent, honourable, fair, kind hearted. He manages to adapt and make the best of his situation, slightly bewildered but with his good nature intact. There are some other great characters here too - some every bit as loveable as the Major, some less likeable representatives of the ugly faces of colonialism - and all suitably eccentric. If you aren't eccentric at the start of life as a character in a Farrell novel, circumstances will pretty soon ensure you are.
Beneath the often laugh-out-loud narrative there is a thought-provoking core. The humour makes you engage with the story and makes it stay with you far more than a dry treatise ever could, and the underlying issues are no less serious. It covers the horrors of war, but also the impacts of colonialism - mostly British, but the principles apply elsewhere - on the people of the colonised nations. The question asked by several of the characters, and never conclusively answered, is whether colonialism should be considered a force for good or not. Farrell lets the reader draw their own conclusions, but from what is shown I think most readers will be left feeling glad that the Empire broke up not long after the time period of the book. There may have been some good aspects to it, but it was definitely an idea that had had its time, as the novel demonstrates.
It's a real tragedy that Farrell died so young and never got the chance to write more books on this subject (although he's got quite a decent collection of novels to his name and managed to win the Booker prize twice). It would be fascinating to see his take on the final destruction of the Empire after the war, and of foreign relations in modern times. Has colonialism really ended, or is it just achieved through other means now? These are the sort of questions that come into mind after reading this novel, and so Farrell continues to both entertain and encourage serious thinking in his readers, many years after his untimely demise.
I'd highly recommend this novel, especially to readers with an interest in history or the Far East. It's a very long novel, but is easy to read and often very funny. Some of the explanations of military manoeuvres are a bit dry, but they don't last long and you're soon back to the story again. It is a rewarding read and makes you think, but is also great fun.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 31 August 2013
I chose to read this book after completing Noel Barber's "Tanamera" and wanting to know more about the fate of Singapore during WW2. It is an excellent complement and I am now looking forward to reading more by Farrell.
The book's title is addressed tangentially at several points in the book, leaving the reader to decide which one(s) might have been the leitmotiv for Farrell. The work is a sweeping view of a complex historical period, recreated through Farrell's masterful blend of fictional characterization with political, military and biographical fact.
Each of the main characters is explored in depth and Farrell has a unique way of entering each character's head to explore ideas and beliefs, without dislocating the continuity of the narrative. In this way, we gain a multifaceted view of ideas about societal models, colonialism, war, and personal survival.
The language of the book is beautifully manipulated with vivid descriptions of natural vistas, gripping depiction of military maneuvers, lively dialogue, and heart-rending descriptions of suffering caused not only by war by also poverty, disease, and exploitation.
It is a testament to Farrell's creative abilities that his characters seemed so real to me that I found it very hard to like anything about the "business class" of self-made men who were running Singapore before the invasion in the belief that "greed is good." This is indeed an ugly vision of British Empire and colonial life, with all its ridiculous rites and routines, snobbery and elitism.
In contrast, the main character Matthew, heir to one of these business fortunes, voices many thoughts and concerns about the need for a better world, or at least a more humane basis for society than the colonial model. His nemesis, his late father's partner Walter is so blinkered about business that he reaches the point of putting his own life in danger while bewailing the loss of his assets.
Interestingly, none of the female characters in this novel is appealing, being largely sketched in rather than fully developed.
My one major concern about this work is the very last chapter which I find specious and a disservice to all that goes before. Farrell plays with the reader by intruding into the narrative --- as he allowed himself to do once, about half-way through the book. Given Farrell's immense writing talents, I can only assume that "writer's ego" got the better of him in these two cases.
For me, the final chapter spoils the reader's "willing suspension of disbelief." Farrell's satirical turns of phrase work much more effectively to convey his true point of view than the moralistic closing observation about the inevitability of exploitation by humankind. Nevertheless, my 4-star rating reflects how much I enjoyed the book (until the last two pages).