Author: J.G. Farrell
Genre: Historical Fiction
“How incredibly Irish it all is!” thought the Major wonderingly. “The family seems to be completely mad.”
Major Brendan Archer has survived the Great War and he believes it’s now time to meet Angela Spencer again, the young woman who wrote him letters every single week and signed herself as his “loving fiancee” in every one of them. Determined to understand the truth of the situation, he finds himself in front of the Majestic Hotel in Kilnalough, a once-grand building that is now slowly collapsing on itself. The Major soon realises that Angela is not the person he remembers, but he gets entangled in the hotel’s life nonetheless: the guests obsessed with gossip and games of cards, the herds of cats who have taken over the upper floors, the wild plants that threaten to take complete control of whole rooms, inside and out. At the same time, he starts falling for the beautiful and bitter Sarah Devlin, while outside unrest threatens the rule of the British Empire: Ireland is ready for independence, and the troubles are brewing.
A closer look
The Lost Man Booker Prize was awarded in 2010 for books published in 1970 that hadn’t been taken into consideration at that time because of some changes in the eligibility rules. Troubles was the winner of this unique prize, and after reading it I can say that I see why.
I had been thinking of reading it later on, but then realised that it’s the first one in a trilogy of companion novels and the second one is another winner of the Booker Prize. The part of my brain that loves order most decided that I just couldn’t read them out of order, so here we are.
I was afraid of approaching this book due to its size as well as the fact that I haven’t been the luckiest with my Booker-related reads until now. I was instead pleasantly surprised by it, with its dark humor and irony, the memorable characters, and the Majestic itself, the once-great hotel that acts as setting for most of the story.
It would be an understatement to call the Majestic only “setting” though; it has so much character on its own that it might as well be one of the protagonists. Its hundred rooms, the corridors and stairs that end up abruptly or carry the unwary visitor into the wrong place, the tropical plants that overrun “the Palm Court” and the ridiculous number of cats roaming the empty floors are only some of the things that made it memorable. Once a glorious Irish retreat for the British gentry, it’s now slowly falling apart, a not-so-subtle metaphor for the decline of British rule over Ireland. Tension is growing between the catholic Irish and the protestant British, and Ireland is edging toward rebellion with every passing day.
The story begins when Major Brendan Archer – called simply Major most of the times – arrives at the Kilnalough train station and is met by Angela’s brother Ripon, whom she has never mentioned in her numerous letters before. The Major is accompanied to the Majestic to meet its owner and father of his betrothed, Edward Spencer – or at least he thinks he is. Instead, Edward fails to meet him at the door, Angela greets him with a coldness he doesn’t understand, and he’s left to find a room for himself without any help.
We find out together with the Major that the Majestic can’t maintain anymore the glory its former customers are used to, and so entire wings are abandoned and left to rot, or become literally invaded by feral cats or plants. Angela disappears after that first strange encounter, and Edward and the Major start building a friendship that will have a lot of ups and downs during the course of the next two years.
The Major also meets Sarah Devlin, one of Angela’s closest friend, a beautiful and bitter young woman that seems to enjoy teasing him and little else.
The Major is not an active protagonist; he’s mostly a spectator, watching the events taking place around him with some detachment and a good dose of irony. I was pleasantly surprised by the author’s ability to be funny even in the direst moments, and I loved the undercurrent of dark humor permeating the story. Characters and circumstances are taken seriously even when they are borderline absurd, but for this very reason they come off as more real and human and you can’t avoid reading with a smile on your lips.
The other characters are also quite memorable; from the elderly ladies living in the hotel and spending their days spreading rumours and playing cards, to the twins, Angela’s sisters, who feign innocence but are in truth a mischievous duo, down to the characters who only appear for a scene or two, they all feel like real people and every one of them adds a new layer to the story, or brings the Major to some new realisation. You can never predict where the story will take you next: even though you know the end of the Majestic from the first pages of the book, the way to get there is made up of episodes that seem totally unrelated until you take a step back and see them as a whole, a reflection of the political situation in Ireland, down to the petty prejudice and the hypocrisy.
I can’t really give you an idea of the plot; the story is mostly composed of single episodes, each one delightful in its own way, and it would be a disservice to try and force it into a different shape for the sake of a review. It’s not the plot itself that makes this book worth the effort, but the ability of Farrell to choose a story that sounds like just another analysis of some historical facts, and write it so well that it’s a pleasure to read without taking itself too seriously. You can read it as a metaphor of the decline of the British Empire, or just take it at face value and enjoy the adventures of the Major in the Majestic.
Farrell’s prose is clean and elegant, simple to follow in the best possible way, and he manages to bring to life characters and setting with ease and a lot of irony.
I will gladly read more of his works, and if this was one of his first novels, I can only imagine what he could have written if he hadn’t died young.