J. G. Farrell

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James Gordon Farrell, best known for his historical novels about the British Empire, was born in Liverpool in 1935 but spent much of his childhood in Ireland. After receiving a degree from the University of Oxford in 1960 he taught English in France for several years. In 1966 he was awarded a two-year scholarship for travel in the United States. After writing three novels, the best of which is The Lung, a black comedy based in part on his own experience with polio, he began the work on which his reputation rests, his trilogy on the history of the decline of the British Empire: Troubles, The Siege of Krishnapur, and The Singapore Grip. All three were immediate critical successes, and Troubles was awarded the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, which enabled Farrell to spend a year in India to do research for The Siege of Krishnapur. For that novel he was awarded the Booker Prize, which allowed him to travel to the Far East to do the research for The Singapore Grip. Farrell’s accidental drowning in his prime as a writer cut short a very successful career.

Farrell once explained his choice of topic for his trilogy of novels: “It seemed to me that the really interesting thing that has happened during my lifetime has been the decline of the British Empire.” Each volume of the trilogy documents one key event in the decline, England’s loss of sovereignty over India, Ireland, and the Far East. The second novel, The Siege of Krishnapur, is historically the first in the sequence, describing the sepoy uprising in India in 1857 from the point of view of the British residents of Krishnapur. (The Hill Station, a posthumously published fragment, is also set in India and features some of the same characters.) Set in Ireland around the time of the rebellion, 1919-1921, Troubles, which combines a satirical political allegory with a dark domestic comedy, is told primarily from the point of view of Major Brendan Archer, an Englishman visiting Ireland with the intention of marrying his Irish fiancée. The Singapore Grip, the third novel of the trilogy, is set in 1941, on the eve of the Japanese invasion of Singapore in World War II. This is the longest and most complexly plotted of the novels. This work too features Archer, but he is here only one among a large cast of characters, among whom the narrative shifts back and forth, telling several different stories.

Farrell’s major contribution was in successfully reviving the genre of the traditional historical novel. His early life in Ireland and his long visits to India and Singapore, together with extensive historical research, help provide the depth of realistic detail found in all of his work. For The Singapore Grip, Farrell even provides a bibliography of more than fifty books on the Far East that he consulted, and he credits a number of eyewitnesses whom he interviewed when gathering his background materials. Yet accuracy alone does not ensure compelling narratives, and his novels are grounded as much in imagination as in history, with interesting characters and suspenseful plots. His concern, and that of the reader, is always more with the adventures of the individual characters than with the historical setting. As he remarked of his depiction of Singapore, “Although many of its bricks are real, its architecture is entirely fantastic.”

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