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J.G. Farrell is one of only four authors who have won the Booker Prize twice, the others being J.M. Coetzee, Peter Carey and Hilary Mantel. Born in Liverpool in 1935, he was tragically drowned in 1979 and the literary world mourned the premature loss of this gifted and original writer.
Troubles is the first novel in his ‘Empire’ trilogy, in which he explores the burgeoning struggle for independence in Ireland at the beginning of the 20th century and holds up a mirror to the dying days of empire. Major Brendan Archer, a shell-shocked survivor of the Great War, arrives at the Majestic Hotel in Co. Wicklow, home of his fiancée Angela. He has little memory of the actual betrothal but regular letters over the past three years from his ‘loving fiancee’ have assured him of his commitment, so he feels bound to do the right thing.
We are immediately thrown into the surreal world of life at the Majestic. The once grand hotel has been sadly neglected and is now peopled by Angela’s dysfunctional family and a collection of elderly ladies, who have nowhere else to go – all seem to be impervious to the decay around them. The ‘Palm Court’, where they gather for tea, is a jungle of vines, creepers and other unrestrained exotic plants, which have assumed supremacy over the few sticks of furniture that remain. Later the Major seeks refuge in the ‘Imperial Bar’, now home to a family of feral cats. In fact, over the course of the story they multiply at an alarming rate until the whole top floor is ‘boiling with cats’. In the midst of the chaos the family and guests continue to behave as though all were normal, seemingly oblivious to the fact that their lives have become a charade of a once glorious past.
It soon becomes obvious that Angela wants nothing to do with the Major who then becomes obsessed with Sarah, a stunning local Catholic girl. She in turn seems more set on bedding ‘the quality’ i.e. Angela’s widowed father, Edward, whose dogs seem more important to him than his family. The hotel’s decline is mirrored in Edward’s mental disintegration as he increasingly withdraws from the life around him to carry out ludicrous scientific experiments. This is a darkly comic book with some laugh out loud moments, interspersed with reports of local Sinn Fein activity and of trouble spots abroad, where the balance of power is also shifting. However, at the Majestic a sense of apathy pervades as the inhabitants of the hotel slide inexorably towards their own downfall – their blindness to the mounting political storm contributing to their tragedy. Farrell is marvellous at creating an atmosphere where the particular reflects the universal and the Majestic is indeed a metaphor for failing British power in Ireland and the ultimate demise of the Anglo-Irish Protestant ascendancy.
This book is a wonderful reflection of a transitional period in Irish history, but the slow pace and lack of any real development in the emotional plot line caused several of our readers to lose interest. Unlike India and Singapore – the settings for the other books in the trilogy – few of our group had much knowledge of Irish history and the sequence events that led ultimately to the signing of the Anglo-Irish treaty in 1921 and the creation of the Irish Free State. As Farrell gave little or no background information, consequently it diminished their ability to connect with the book. However, all were agreed that Farrell’s use of language was superb.
We meet again on 12th December when we shall be doing a group reading of Joe Orton’s play – What the Butler Saw. (Changed to Alan Ayckbourn’s Family Circles.)
Withiel Book Circle – reading list
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