A blog by the staff of the Thomas Ford Memorial Library
In J.G. Farrell’s Troubles, Major Brendan Archer, an English soldier visiting Brighton while on leave from the frontlines of WWI, impulsively proposes to Angela Spencer, the daughter of an Anglo-Irish hotelier. Three years later he returns from the war, surprised at his own survival, and dutifully makes his way to the Irish town of Kilnalough to claim his bride.
What Archer discovers in Kilnalough seems to be ripped from the pages of a gothic novel. First, there’s the Majestic, the crumbling hotel nominally run by Angela’s father but really controlled by bands of feral cats and encroaching vegetation. Then there are the few remaining guests who, oblivious to the squalor around them, live in the memories of the Majestic’s once opulent past. And, most mysteriously, there is Angela herself, pale and wan, barely speaking to Archer when he first arrives, she quickly disappears and seems forever lost behind the locked door of her bedroom.
Archer stays at the hotel for months, his polite nature keeping him from discovering the reason for Angela’s withdrawal and the true state of their engagement. Meanwhile, he makes a tentative friendship with an unpredictable catholic girl named Sarah Devlin and becomes a reluctant participant in the violent political “troubles” that overwhelmed Ireland in 1919.
J.G. Farrell is the author of a couple other black comedies, The Siege of Krishnapur and Singapore Grip, which also chronicle the decline of British imperialism and feature comically clueless characters clinging to their values while chaos and violence surround them. All three are excellent reading, but Troubles is really the best of them. The book’s biggest strength is its evocative setting. Kilnalough’s Majestic Hotel is like a main character in the novel, its decay tied to the political strife around it. There is a large cast of unusual and interesting minor characters, while the protagonist, Archer, is very finely drawn. His changing attitude towards the English occupation of Ireland is subtle and realistic. There are a few brilliant set-pieces, including a “Sinner,” or Sinn Feiner, being hunted like a fox through the Majestic’s collapsing grounds. It’s a longish book at about 450 pages, but every scene seems to offer something unexpected and new.
Review by Matthew