JG Farrell – The Singapore Grip

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The Singapore Grip* tells the story of the last days of the British Empire in Singapore, beginning with the years running up to the second world war.

The omniscient narrator provides various perspectives on the events in Singapore, telling the story at first from the point of view of Walter Blackett, a wealthy rubber trader born in the colony.  His family, his firm and their acquaintances and contacts are at the heart of the story, but Farrell does sometimes step away from their world to show events from the point of view of some of the major historical players – the British commander, General Percival, and the interestingly named Australian General – Gordon Bennett.  He can be at his best here – with some scathing attacks on the complacency, self interest and incompetence of these leaders of Empire.

Farrell’s portrait of the British and of the Empire is not really flattering.  Walter Blackett is driven by business and lacks compassion; his daughter is beautiful but equally ruthless, and his son is a louche and selfish coward, qualities epitomised by his attempt to escape the burning city on an ocean liner with a Bentley and an all female singing group. There are few redeeming characters – some with personal loyalty, like the Major who represents a way of life that is past, others, like the Blackett’s neighbour Matthew Webb, with misplaced idealism, still loyal to the ideals of the League of Nations.  Farrell does a good job of integrating these different characters and points of view so that his criticism of the role of Empire, of the shortcomings of capitalism and of the failure of the world order is clearly brought to our attention.

There is a lot going on in this book and it’s a good read.  The opening section is a little less exciting – large sections of Walter’s narrative are used to summarise the historical and political situation in Singapore in the run up to the war, and in other places too Farrell sacrifices some narrative drive in order to get across historical and contextual details.  Nevertheless there is tension and excitement – sections which end with the Japanese fleet steaming down the coast, or a Japanese plane crossing the border create a sense of tension and act as ironic counterpoints to descriptions of the ex-pat life of pool parties and drunken nights out.  Farrell is good on the battlefield scenes too – they are quite convincing, told from strongly personal points of view and explain the sequence of historical events pretty well.  His characters are always real and credible – flawed and perfectly human – and often presented with humour.

I recommend this book.

* This is the last volume of Farrell’s Empire Trilogy – my review of the second can be found at this link:

The Siege of Krishnapur – Farrell

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