Picture if you will a beautiful land, storied with history, under the greatest of pressure, yet a tale told as lightly as a ray of sunlight poking through the constant clouds. That land is Ireland, the history one of occupation, the pressure is that of revolution, and the tale is one of a crumbling old hotel being comically mismanaged. Set in the days after the First World War but before Irish Independence, Troubles tells the tale of Major Brendan Archer, who, while recovering from shell shock finds out he is supposedly engaged to a woman whom he is barely familiar with, the daughter of Edward Spencer, the Anglo-Irish owner of a resort hotel on the Irish coast.
Written in 1973, during the heady day of, well, The Troubles, as they are blithely called, English author James Farrell created a small world of impoverished English ladies, failing country squires, black-hearted paramilitaries, indifferent young women, and one sad, yet determined English officer. All the while, in the background are the Shiners, the English slang term for the Irish freedom fighters/terrorists called Sinn Fein. Faceless, nameless, we never get to know any of these people, and that is a clear choice of the author, as it reflects the reality of Anglo-Irish life.
This is a tale that starts off slow and fairly silly and gains speed and darkness as it moves along. In the main, it takes place in and around the failing and falling apart Majestic Hotel, a dying resort on the south Irish coast. As the book moves along, more and more of the physical structure of the hotel becomes uninhabitable and downright dangerous at times. The attacks of the Shiners are a low-level noise in the background, with occasional flare-ups as shown through newspaper articles at first, but gradually coming closer and closer to our main characters. At the same time, we watch the mental disintegration of the hotel’s owner, Edward Spencer.
Our tale ends as we already know it will, with Irish Independence. Along the way we see the rise of the Black and Tans, rank bigotry against the local Catholics, fear setting in the local Anglo’s, raw violence and terror, and our sad major muddling through. It is a fair bit heavy-handed in relating the falling hotel to the falling English presence, but it is done in such a humorous if sad fashion that we will forgive this. And while I do not know if that was deliberate or not, I do know that for the most part, we are in the hands of a master. Indeed, Farrell gradually leads us from a seemingly inconsequential, very seventies novel, to a fine examination of people losing everything they know to an enemy that they feel should be on the same side as them. As I said, we really do not see the Shiners, a deliberate choice of Farrells as the English did not see them either, at least not as a people who deserve self-determination.
Troubles is the first of Farrell’s Empire trilogy, a set of novels fictionally documenting various key actions in the fall of the British Empire. The Siege of Krishnapur, about the Sepoy revolt in India that was the downfall of the East India Company in 1857, is the second book, while The Singapore Grip, set during the Japanese takeover of that city in 1942, is the final book. These form a loose trilogy, as there are no real crossover characters or storylines. While I have not read those two, there are copies on my shelves, and they will be read in their own good time. And that is the surest way of knowing that this was a good and worthy book, the desire to read other works of the author.
Sadly, aside from a few early titles that amount to little more than juvenilia, these three books are all that our author wrote. JG Farrell, a two-time Booker award winner, died off the Irish coast in 1979, falling into the sea while fishing. He was 44 years old.