Sunday 3 February 2013

J.G. Farrell: Singapore Grip

I recently posted about a book which I compared unfavourably with J.G. Farrell’s Singapore Grip.

Now that I’ve finished reading Farrell’s novel, I realise this is rather an unfair comparison.

Because Singapore Grip is one of the finest books I’ve ever read.

It’s certainly in the top ten, probably in the top two or three.

But to hell with that kind of spectrum-disorder pigeon-holing.

Let’s just say this novel is beautifully written, darkly sardonic and both hilarious and heartbreaking. With beautiful prose, black humour and immaculate research Farrell paints a picture of the last days of Singapore before it was overrun by the Japanese in World War Two.

What is remarkable about the book is that despite being laugh out loud funny (in the most dark and cynical way) it never loses its tension or suspense. And the battle sequences crackle with terror and excitement.

The only novel I can think of which remotely compares to it in this regard is William Eastlake’s forgotten masterpiece Castle Keep, another highly unusual war story.

J.G. Farrell is a phenomenal writer. The first book I read by him was The Siege of Krishnapur (which won the Booker Prize in 1973). This tale of the Indian Mutiny was seriously impressive. It reminded me of a more satirical and surreal Patrick O’Brian.

But it was nothing compared to the stunning Troubles (winner of the so-called Lost Booker Prize), a story of Ireland in the throes of insurrection shortly after World War One. Troubles comes close to Singapore Grip in terms of brilliance and I recommend it without hesitation.

It also introduces the Major, a character who goes on to feature prominently in Singapore Grip.

Troubles was serialised in a splendid version on Radio 4, and I have that to thank for introducing me to Farrell.

The Siege of Krishnapur, Troubles and Singapore Grip form what is known as the Empire Trilogy. I urge you to read any or all of them. And if you go at it in chronological order, you’ll find the books just get better and better.

As you might have guessed by now, J.G. Farrell is my hero. He even wrote about cats. Here he is with a couple of them, in a wonderful photo by Snowdon.

There is a tragic epilogue to all this. Who knows what Farrell might have achieved if he had continued to write after Singapore Grip? But he died, drowning in bizarre accident which could have come out of one of his novels.

That was in 1979.

He was 44.

(Images: the cover of Singapore Grip is from Wikipedia. The cover of Castle Keep (designed by the great Paul Bacon) is from Amazon. Lord Snowdon's photograph of Farrell can be found at the National Portrait Gallery.)

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this fascinating review. I think that I will hunt down a copy of this book.