The Singapore Grip

The Singapore grip is the last in J.G. Farrell's brilliant trilogy of satirical novels set against the backdrop of the dying days of the British Empire. My favourite, The Siege Of Krishnapur, the first in the series, is set during the Indian Mutiny in a town rather like Lucknow, while the second, Troubles is set in Ireland shortly before independence. The final novel in the series, published the year before Farrell died tragically young aged just 44, is set in Singapore in the lead-up to the Japanese invasion in 1942.

As is typical of Farrell there is a huge cast ranging from a bewildered son of an Empire builder to the daughter of (possibly) a White Russian princess and a Chinese merchant. Often darkly comic, by turns exhilarating and exasperating, this is a stunning read. It's a very wordy read, long stretches of the book are given over to an extensive history of the background to the Japanese invasion, and of the battle for Singapore. There are also long stretches about rubber planting and colonialism. These are not all essential for the through-narrative and readers who are happy to skip may do so. Readers who feel compelled to read everything will find it instructive although sometimes a bit like wading through quick sand!

There is much to wonder at here however both good and bad. Farrell is honest about the dangers of colonialism and its effect both on the conquered and conquerers. There is much to be shocked by in the attitude of some of the European settlers towards their own army. But there is also much to be admired - the passages re the volunteer firefighters nearly reduced me to tears, their bravery was a real example.

The central narrative itself though is wonderful, by turns savage, funny, and sensitive. And as always with Farrell there's a great cast of characters - the innocent, idealist Matthew, the can-do Major and his brave friend Dupigny, the Human Condition - a spaniel with better survival instincts than most of the Singaporeans, and the unpleasant Joan. A tale of courage, romance, and some truly lunatic behaviour, J.G. Farrell's story is unforgettable.


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