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Thursday, 19 July 2012

Book Review: Troubles by J.G. Farrell

Troubles tells the story of Major Brendan Archer, a soldier who survived the trenches, who travels to Ireland in 1919 to 'claim' the fiancée he acquired on leave a few years earlier. In truth, he wants to break the engagement off but when he arrives at the dilapidated Majestic hotel he finds that easier said than done. He finds Angela, yes, but is also rapidly sucked into the lives of her father, brother, twin sisters, deaf grandmother, the assortment of guests and servants, not to mention the breeding cats that have taken over the Imperial Bar. And it doesn't help that Ireland is simmering with violence either.

Perhaps the first thing to acknowledge about this novel is how well-written and evocative it is. It's teeming with wonderful sentences and alarming images as the Major becomes accustomed to life at the unconventional hotel. You get a taste of this early on, as he returns to his room on his first night there:

"Then he noticed again, more strongly than before, the sweetish, nauseating odour he had decided to forget about earlier. It was an awful smell. He could not stand it. But the thought of opening the window to more moths made his skin crawl. He took a slipper from his suitcase and stalked the fluttering moths. But after he had splattered one or two against the wall he stopped, his nerves jangled by remorse, and wished he had left them alive. So while the others continued to whiz and circle around the electric light he started to search for the source of the smell, looking in cupboards, sniffing the washbasin, peering under the bed (none of these things, as it happened, smelled very savoury).

A small cupboard stood beside the bed. He wrenched open the door. On the top shelf there was nothing. On the bottom shelf was a chamber-pot and in the chamber-pot was a decaying object crawling with white maggots. From the middle of this object a large eye, bluish and corrupt, gazed up at the Major, who scarcely had time to reach the bathroom before he began to vomit brown soup and steamed bacon and cabbage. Little by little the smell of the object stole into the bathroom and enveloped it." (p43-44)

This is the first of many memorable scenes within the novel, which spans a few years until the Major is forced from the Majestic by events beyond his control. The Major is the sense within a situation plagued by nonsense. The hotel is quite literally disintegrating around him and the Spencer family is no better. He becomes the patriarchal figure within the hotel as the owner, Edward Spencer, slowly descends into his own world. Matters, however do come to a head, in a bloody and unexpected (though actually inevitable) manner.

I can't emphasise enough how much I enjoyed reading Troubles. It's exquisitely written and conveys the unsteady situation in Ireland at the time while not focusing specifically on it. By looking at how events overtake a ragged collection of hotel workers and guests, the story is a much more personal one. It's also very funny. There was rarely a section where I didn't laugh at least once, even if what I was laughing at was rather macabre. Also worth a mention is the array of peripheral characters - they all had their quirks that reoccurred and added to the story as a whole. Padraig and his (initially enforced) cross-dressing; Mr Norton with his debauched life and interest in the young twins; the old ladies who inevitably melted into one but each had their own personalities.

This is a rich novel for so many reasons. I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it, though there is a substantial amount of the grotesque which may not appeal to all.

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