Troubles is part of JG Farrell’s wonderful Empire Trilogy. It is set in the aftermath of the First World War. A British major has become engaged by mistake to a woman from Ireland. He visits her at the hotel which is run by her family, where he is soon released from his obligation, but somehow he stays.
The hotel is gradually going to ruin but the staff and guests carry on, apparently oblivious, living hypnotically uneventful lives in the decaying remnants of colonial splendour. Meanwhile, outside, the world is changing. There is a sense of impending threat as the struggle for Irish independence gathers momentum, eventually penetrating even the grounds.
The guests regard all this as a kind of backdrop, something which enlivens their trips out or forms a topic of conversation over afternoon tea. They make no response – until finally they have no choice.
Farrell makes the behaviour of the characters both ridiculous and entirely believable. Confronted by crisis, by tumultuous events beyond their control, they focus on what is immediate – playing whist or planning a ball.
At their heart is the Major, an enigmatic character who appears to have retained his rank but relinquished his name. His identity was forged by the traumas of the war and he now returns to a world sleepwalking into further conflict.
Troubles is an intriguing, bleakly funny and powerful book. Like the Major, I couldn’t tear myself away.