Critical Context

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The posthumous publication in 1981 of an unfinished novel by J. G. Farrell entitled The Hill Station prevents a neat encapsulation of his major work. Had The Hill Station not appeared, it would have been possible to deal with The Singapore Grip as the culmination of a trilogy of historical novels begun by Troubles (1970) and including The Siege of Krishnapur (1973). Nevertheless, these three novels are the major works of an important talent and have perhaps been unfairly overshadowed by some other contemporary end-of-the-empire sagas. It should be noted, however, that these works were well received in England, The Siege of Krishnapur winning in 1973 the prestigious and lucrative Booker Prize, for which The Singapore Grip was a runner-up.

As may be inferred from the titles of Farrell’s three most important novels, their setting is the British Empire (Troubles is set in Ireland). This setting, however, while conveyed with an impressive depth of research and a consummate eye for telling detail, is ultimately the mere backdrop for more challenging considerations, mainly having to do with the spectacle, existentially considered, of man inscribing himself in time, of man the historical animal. Seen in the light of such considerations, Farrell emerges as one of the more interesting English novelists of the 1970’s. Not only does his work touch a cultural nerve which was extremely sensitive, given the amount of literary stimulus it received during that decade; in addition it makes a distinctive contribution to one of the most interesting trends of the day: the rediscovery of the historical novel. Although, largely because his career was tragically terminated, Farrell cannot be called a major writer, The Singapore Grip is undoubtedly a major work of postwar English fiction, to the conventional tradition of which it is refreshingly eccentric.