Among the bathtubs and the washbasins
A thousand mushrooms crowd to a keyhole."
"A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford". Derek Mahon.
Irish poet Derek Mahon dedicated the haunting poem quoted above to J.G. Farrell, author of "Troubles". It is a marvelous poem that pays tribute to an absolutely marvelous book; one of the finest books I have read in recent memory.
Farrell, born in Liverpool in 1935 is best-remembered for three books. "Troubles", "The Siege of Krishnapur" (which won Farrell the U.K.'s 1973 Booker Prize), and "The Singapore Grip". Shortly after publication of "The Singapore Grip" Farrell moved to Ireland. He died a few months later when, apparently while fishing, he was swept out to sea and drowned, at age 44. Each of these three books, known collectively as the "Empire Trilogy, is set during a time of crisis in what was once the British Empire. "The Siege of Krishnapur" is set in India during the Indian Rebellion of 1857 and "The Singapore Grip" is set in Singapore at the beginning of World War II at the time of the Japanese attack and occupation of Singapore.
"Troubles" takes place in the Irish countryside in 1920, at the height of the turbulence that resulted in the creation of the Irish Republic and the eventual partition of Ireland. The protagonist, the English Major Brendan Archer, is a survivor of the Great War. Upon his demobilization Archer decides to travel from his home in London to Ireland in order to finalize his relationship with Angela Spencer, a young lady he met and perhaps became engaged to, while on leave during the war. Angela's father runs what was once a grand hotel, The Majestic, and Archer finds himself immediately swept up in the collapse of what was once a thriving Anglo-Irish community in Ireland. The Majestic is a mess; it is rotting from within in much the same way that English dominion in Ireland is rotting from without. "Troubles" looks both at the isolated, and fairly bizarre world of the inhabitants of the Majestic while the Irish rebellion creeps closer and closer to intruding on their world.
"Troubles" is an admirable and sometimes uncomfortable mixture of drama and comedy. Some have compared the comedic elements of "Troubles" to the best of Evelyn Waugh and the comparison is certainly apt. I'd only add that Farrell's dark humor is tinted with an element of semi-tragic slapstick such that, given its hotel setting, I could not help but be reminded of John Cleese's "Fawlty Towers". Yet, at the same time, there is an ineffable sadness that permeates the story. Major Archer, whose wartime experiences are only hinted at, is portrayed as a well-intentioned but singularly ineffectual protagonist. He sees the physical rot that surrounds him but is powerless to stop it. He falls in love but his pining and puppy dog-like attempts at courting are rebuffed with so much condescension that I could only wonder why he continued to bother.
I echo the two previous reviewers who have warned readers to save John Banville's brief, but powerful, Introduction to "Troubles" until after they have read the book. Banville reveals a critical spoiler that once read is impossible to forget. By the time I was halfway through the book I was sure that my advance knowledge of a critical event at the conclusion would detract from the pleasure I would have had if I hadn't seen it coming. I urge readers to save the Introduction until after they have actually read the book.
J.G. Farrell's "Troubles" is a wonderful book and I can say nothing more but urge anyone interested in `discovering' a wonderful writer to start with this book. I also suggest that once you've read the book you look up Mahon's poem (cited above) that was dedicated to Farrell. In many respects that poem serves as both a great tribute and a wonderfully crafted review of a book and the meaning one can glean from it. Highly recommended. L. Fleisig