October 20, 2020

The Singapore Grip By J G Farrell: A timeless tale that still speaks volumes – book review –


If you’re gripped by the major ITV dramatisation of J.G. Farrell’s tragi-comic tale charting the invasion of Singapore during the Second World War, why not read beyond the lines of the television screenplay and enjoy the book in all its rich detail.

Adapted by Oscar-winning screenwriter and playwright Christopher Hampton, with executive producer Damien Timmer, and starring Luke Treadway, David Morrissey, Jane Horrocks and Charles Dance, the Sunday night drama is gathering a new generation of Farrell fans.

Described by The Spectator as ‘one of the most outstanding novelists of his generation,’ Farrell was born in Liverpool in 1935 but spent a good deal of his life abroad, before settling in London where he wrote most of his novels.

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The Singapore Grip, first published in 1978, was the third book of his outstanding Empire Trilogy which began with Troubles, featuring the uprisings in Ireland, and the Booker prize-winning Siege of Krishnapur, centred on British India.

Just a year after the publication of The Singapore Grip, Farrell bought a farmhouse in Bantry Bay on the Irish coast but was killed when he was hit by a wave while fishing and was washed out to sea. However, his book exploring and satirising British colonial society in the run-up to the Japanese invasion has become a modern classic.

In Singapore in 1939, life on the eve of the Second World War just isn’t what it used to be for Walter Blackett, ruthless rubber merchant and head of Blackett and Webb Limited, British Singapore’s oldest and most powerful firm. But even so, his family’s prosperous world of tennis parties, cocktails and deferential servants at Tanglin seems unchanging.

Away from this suburban conglomerate of calm and comforts, the police are discovering that no matter how forcefully they break one strike, the natives go on strike somewhere else.

And his eldest, rebellious daughter Joan keeps entangling herself with the most unsuitable beaus, while her intended match, Oxford graduate Matthew Webb, son of Blackett’s partner, who arrives in Singapore from England as war is exploding across Europe, is an idealistic sympathiser with the League of Nations and a vegetarian.

Business may be booming – the war in Europe means the Allies are desperate for rubber and helpless to resist Blackett’s price-fixing and market manipulation – but something is wrong.

No one yet suspects that the world is poised on the edge of the abyss, the British Empire, with its fixed boundaries between classes and nations, is about to come to a terrible end and Singapore is set to fall to the Japanese.

A love story and a war story, a tragicomic tale of a city under siege and a dying way of life, The Singapore Grip is a work of immense imaginative power which captures the heart and soul of both colonial Singapore and the people who lived there.

Written with Farrell’s trademark wit, energy and observant eye for the flaws and foibles of Britain’s days of Empire, this is a story that peers into the many and diverse features of Singapore in the Thirties and Forties… the stately colonial homes, the cocktail lounges, the opium dens, the slums, and the seething mass of people rich and poor.

A timeless tale that still speaks volumes…

(W&N, paperback, £10.99)



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