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Monday, 29 December 2014

Book Review: The Siege of Krishnapur by J.G. Farrell

In 2012 I read J.G. Farrell's Troubles (reviewed here) and it rapidly became one of my favourites. Its mixture of humour and tragedy, often within the same sentence, was intoxicating and that's also a combination used to great effect in The Siege of Krishnapur. This one's a book I bought for my undergraduate degree and never got round to reading. It tells the story of, as might be guessed, a siege in Krishnapur where the British community is living a serene existence. Only the Collector, Mr Hopkins, senses the danger ahead but he's dismissed as a crank until violence sweeps closer.

Once again, I adored this book. It's a strange mixture of light and dark, using the macabre to great effect. I was a little impatient for the 'real' story to get going, the scene-setting of people and places might have been important but I wanted to delve into the stress of the siege. However, everything we'd learned earlier played a part in the later scenes of despair and tragedy.

Description is one of Farrell's strengths and he uses smell to particularly good effect in this novel. Days after finishing reading it I'm still captured by the unseen bodies lying beyond the walls and the starving dogs tied up and forced to survive any way they can. Most of the characters are distinctive and there are little ongoing skirmishes which add to the overall effect of civilisation in peril. The two doctors, for instance, have on-going rows which, as with most situations in this novel, come to a darkly comical conclusion. The Padre, as well, goes around trying to convert everyone in the midst of battle. Two of the scenes that linger from this book, for me, come from this character: firstly, the battle scene where he is preaching and preaching even while the cannons are firing around him and, secondly, the scene where he's trying to convert one character while digging a grave and the corpse almost ends up going in vertically by accident. Yes, macabre but extremely memorable.

The Siege of Krishnapur is an excellent book, not for the squeamish perhaps but certainly beautifully written and evocative. It is full of reality drawn from contemporary sources about the Indian Mutiny and woven into a stunning novel that I really found it a pleasure to read, despite the horror it was detailing. That's quite a feat and I remain in awe of Farrell's literary ability.

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