Neglected masterpiece takes Lost Booker honours

Winning the Booker prize almost 40 years ago for The Siege of Krishnapur, JG Farrell used his acceptance speech to denounce capitalism, specifically in the form of the prize’s sugar-trade sponsors. The late author would no doubt have been delighted to be given a similar platform today after his novel Troubles was chosen by the reading public as winner of the Lost Booker award.

The story of an army major who travels to a decaying Irish hotel in 1919 to meet his rashly acquired fiancée, Troubles was one of six novels published in 1970 to be shortlisted for the Lost Booker, intended to reward books that were ineligible when they were published, thanks to a shift in the fledgling prize’s schedule that year, which resulted in the exclusion of almost 12 months’ worth of novels from consideration.

More than 4 000 readers worldwide cast votes for their favourite shortlisted novel, with Troubles taking 38% of the vote, more than double that of other contenders by Muriel Spark, Nina Bawden, Shirley Hazzard, Mary Renault and Patrick White.

Set in the Majestic hotel in fictional Kilnalough, County Wexford, Troubles sees Major Brendan Archer travelling to meet Angela, the fiancée he had acquired during an afternoon’s leave. The engagement proves shortlived but the major remains in the hotel, hypnotised by its faded charms and ancient inhabitants, as the Irish war of independence is about to begin.

“From the first page you have this bizarre world painted for you of this decaying hotel, which is symbolic of the state of affairs in Northern Ireland,” said Independent Television News newsreader Katie Derham, who selected the shortlist with poet and novelist Tobias Hill and Observer journalist Rachel Cooke.

The novel is the first in Farrell’s Empire trilogy, which concludes with The Siege of Krishnapur — a story of the British in 1857 India on the brink of revolution, which beat Iris Murdoch to the Booker in 1973 — and The Singapore Grip, set in Singapore just before the Japanese invasion in World War II. Farrell’s last completed novel, The Singapore Grip, was published in 1978, a year before the 44-year-old author drowned in a fishing accident in Ireland. “He died terribly young and there’s a frisson when you think of what he might have gone on to write,” said Derham. “It would be fabulous to know what he’d make of the collapse of empire now.”

Born in Liverpool in 1935, the author studied at Oxford University, contracting polio as a student (an experience which he drew on for his second novel, The Lung). He completed six novels, and was working on The Hill Station at the time of his death. Asked why he wrote about the past, Farrell said: “History leaves so much out. It leaves out the most important thing: the detail of what being alive is like.” —

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Alison Flood
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