Review: Troubles, by J.G. Farrell

In May, 2010 J.G. Farrell’s Troubles won the “Lost Man Booker Prize.” The award brought renewed attention to this classic, first published in 1970.  I knew the novel was set around 1920, and dealt with the war between Sinn Fein/I.R.A. and British occupational forces in Ireland.  I enjoy historical fiction, and I read several glowing reviews, but unfortunately this book failed to live up to my expectations.

The story begins when Major Brendan Archer, recently discharged from the British army, travels to Ireland to reunite with his fiancee, Angela, whose father Edward owns The Majestic, a huge, decrepit hotel.  The Major isn’t quite sure how he became engaged to Angela, but all of her letters to him imply a commitment was made.  However, on arrival at The Majestic, Angela behaves strangely towards him, and is soon taken ill and confined to bed.  Meanwhile, Edward is attracted to Sarah Devlin, a young woman from town.  She is an obnoxious attention-seeker, and I never understood what he saw in her.  Later, Edward’s twin daughters Faith and Charity arrive on the scene.  Like most of the characters in Troubles, they are caricatures, but I also found them distasteful.

The book is satirical, and infused with dry wit which I really enjoyed:

They had kissed behind a screen of leaves and, reaching out to steady himself, he had put his hand down on a cactus, which had rendered many of his parting words insincere.  The strain had been so great that he had been glad to get away from her. Perhaps, however, this suppressed agony had given the wrong impression of his feelings. (p. 7)

The story is long and sprawling, with several subplots and a number of fantastical events.  I could appreciate The Majestic as a metaphor for the decline of Empire, and the residents as stereotypes of the Anglo-Irish privileged classes.  But late in the novel there were several acts of senseless cruelty to animals, all described in the same “witty” style as the above quote, and that was the turning point in my opinion of this novel.  There was something about Troubles that appealed to me (I did, after all, read all 459 pages), and other aspects reminded me of magical realism, a genre I do not care for.

Many of my fellow readers have loved this book, but for some reason it just wasn’t for me.