Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 23, 2016

The Singapore Grip, by J.G. Farrell

The Singapore Grip 001I was looking forward to reading The Singapore Grip but I was disappointed by it.  I paid a small fortune for it in British postage costs when I belonged to an online Booker Prize reading group … we had chosen The Siege of Krishnapur as a book for discussion but I couldn’t buy it here in Australia. (Yes, this was before the Book Depository existed and when the fledgling Amazon focussed on US titles).  In for a penny, in for a pound, I thought, and I bought the entire Empire Trilogy comprising Troubles (1970); The Siege of Krishnapur (1973); and The Singapore Grip (1978).  The novels explore the decline of the British Empire with wry humour, and not without schadenfreude.  (Farrell was Liverpool-born, but of Irish ancestry).   

The Siege of Krishnapur won the Booker in 1973, and it was also shortlisted for Best of the Booker in 2008.  It’s a great book, not least for the depiction of its central character, The Collector.  He starts out as the sort of British colonial fool you’d expect, racist towards the Indians on whom his lifestyle depends, and casually complacent about British power. But he grows in stature and moral complexity when the garrison is besieged by sepoys for four months and everything he has assumed about British power and character and ‘standards’ is inverted.  Troubles is a great book too, again tracing the breakdown of society when its military and economic power is tested, in this case, satirising the Anglo-Irish overlords during the Irish War of Independence (1919-1921).

So, yes, expectations were high for The Singapore Grip, but the novel drowns under the weight of its own research, and the characterisation is woeful.  It’s about the last days of British power in Singapore before the Japanese invasion in 1941, beginning with a depiction of the lost world of British privilege and exploitation, and taking 596 pages to detail the inexorable progress of the Japanese towards victory.  Even if I’d had a map I couldn’t have followed it all and I wasn’t interested anyway – because each air-raid, battle, attempt to escape Singapore and struggle to quench the fires is used for diatribes by two characters, Matthew and the American Ehrendorf, who, having met at Oxford, have somehow escaped the prevailing British contempt for the exploited workers – and Farrell spends a lot of printer’s ink on their inner thoughts and dialogue about how morally wrong it all was.  It’s as if he thinks his readers are too dim to understand his pontificating and need to be beaten over the head with it.

Most of characters are caricatures, as if Farrell had lost interest in depicting the Brits as human beings and saw them only as vehicles to use for his stance on anti-colonialism. I can’t begin to explain how irritating the depiction of women was: there’s the vacuous wife of Wilfred Blackett who’s an unconvincing version of Mrs Bennett; his cruel and selfish daughter Joan determined to use her beauty to unite business empires through marriage; and the most peculiar Vera, a Eurasian who  – I kid you not – considers herself superior to  Joan not because she’s more intelligent than Joan and has a consistent moral core, but because she has bigger breasts.  Walter Blackett is the central character, a businessman who cares only about commerce, and obstinately persists with his plans for his firm’s jubilee despite the imminent arrival of the Japanese.   Walter isn’t above profiteering and in the end is prepared to end decades of petty hatred for a commercial rival to marry Joan off to the rival’s offspring when her other plans have gone awry.  I kept waiting for Walter to have his moment on The Road to Damascus, or even a slowly dawning realisation, but no, it doesn’t happen.

So, why is this title included in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die?  Well, they include the entire trilogy, and they note this one as a vivid portrait of Singapore at a historical watershed.  They think it is

lengthy and leisurely, but full of suspense and humour.  Quietly and humorously critical of the conventions and ideologies of Empire, Farrell anticipates a style of postcolonial writing that came to be embodied by authors such as Timothy Mo and Salman Rushdie. (p.675).

They also explain that Farrell used his Booker prize money to fund a trip to Singapore to do the research for this novel, and I suspect that he ended up just wanting to use it all…

Author: J.G. Farrell
Title: The Singapore Grip
Publisher: Phoenix, 1992
ISBN: 9781857994926
Source: Personal library.

Availability

Fishpond: The Singapore Grip


Responses

  1. I’ve read the whole Trilogy and enjoyed it but I think Singapore Grip was my least favorite.

    • Hi Becky:)
      Yes, that’s the impression I get from reading other reviews at Goodreads. Honestly, some of those battle scenes were like reading Anthony Beevor’s Stalingrad, just set in the tropics…

  2. Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  3. Oh no, I did not want to know this! I thoroughly enjoyed the other two books and was looking forward to this one even thinking of saving it for a long flight. Drat and double drat…I do hate authors who feel they have done the research and they are not going to lose all that material so they stuff it into the book, consequently boring the pants off their readers

    • I know exactly what you mean! I ‘save’ books for when I really want to be sure of enjoying my reading, and this was one of them. I really loved the other two, and I thought this would be just as good if not better (because I know the area and of course the history of the fall of Singapore), and I was really cross about the author letting me down…

  4. Well, on the plus side, I will now keep an eye out for Troubles and The Siege of Krishnapur.

    • Oh yes, do, they are definitely must-reads IMO.

  5. I have this on the shelf so I’m sorry to hear that you found this disappointing (I bought a used copy too). I loved Troubles, so perhaps that’s why the trilogy is included. A film is made of Troubles too, btw. Have you read it? When I first read it, I wasn’t ready for its humour and it took me a while to get used to it to be honest.

    • I hope you read it anyway, because you may have a different view of it, and it would be good to counterbalance my thoughts with a recent positive review. I’d love to see a film of Troubles, that was great, though IMO The Siege of Krishnapur is the best of them.

      • I will still read it. It’s a miniseries BTW, Well worth catching.

        • Is it? BBC? I wonder if we can get it here… sometimes things aren’t available for our region, but I’ll look out for it.

          • Not sure if it’s BBC but it is British w/ a great cast. It is available on DVD. You can always spring for an all region player. It’s worth a bit extra.

            • LOL I didn’t know such a thing was available. Next time we buy a new one we’ll look into that…

              • DVDS are programmed by the manufacturer to accept a certain region. Apparently if one is a whiz at such things, it’s possible to deprogramme the player to accept all regions. I went the simple route and bought an all-region and never looked back. I watch a lot of Russian dvds that I would not be able to see otherwise.

                • It would be French ones that I’d want to see. There’s a series called Un Village Francais that I can only get here up to season 2 and in France they’re up to season 7.

                • I have that on a subscription channel. Will see how series they have. Have you seen Spiral (French crime)?

  6. Your experience with this book sounds similar to mine with Rome. :-(

    • I think it’s more of a let-down when you really love an author. BTW, talking Zola, I was all set to read my next one when Oxford Worlds’ Classics told me that they have a new translation on the way so I’m holding off till April when it comes out.

      • Is that Earth? You’re in for a treat with that one. I would love to read the new translation as a criticism of the Penguin translation was that too many modern terms were used.

        • Yes it is, and it’s by Brian Nelson who is IMO the pick of the bunch.

  7. I just read that J. G. Farrell died in a fishing accident in 1979 at the age of 44. I’m one who wasn’t disappointed with ‘Singapore Grip’ or any of the trilogy. He is like a later-day Graham Greene.

    • A freak wave, wasn’t it? Yes, a tragedy, because yes, (for me, leaving TSG out of it) he was like a Graham Greene for his times.

  8. This reminded me of Tan Twan Eng’s ‘The Garden of Evening Mists’ which is one of my favourite novels (have you read it?) From your review, it sounds like Farrell was a bit tired by the time he reached the end of his trilogy!

    • Hi Jess, LOL maybe he was worn out from all his tropical travels!
      Yes, I have read The Garden of Evening Mists and I liked it a lot. I think it was shortlisted for the Booker? I remember it had a slow start and then it became totally absorbing…

  9. Guy, I haven’t seen that one, my French might not yet be good enough to follow a crime series. (I don’t watch English crime shows anyway, not my thing).

    • The characters are really good. 5 series so far…


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