Only few get away

On J. G. Farrell’s Novel «The Singapore Grip»

J. G. Farrell was born 1935 into an Anglo-Irish family; he grew up in Liverpool and in Dublin. While studying at Oxford, he contracted polio, which left him crippled for the rest of his life. His first novel was published when he was twenty-eight but it did not meet with critical acclaim; the same can be said for his next two attempts.

It was only in 1970, when Troubles appeared, that he became noticed as a writer. This novel is set in Ireland in 1919, during the Irish War of Independence (1919–1921). It was followed by two more works which were eventually grouped as the so-called Empire Trilogy: The Siege of Krishnapur (1973), set during the Indian Mutiny (1857), and The Singapore Grip (1978). Shortly after the publication of this latter novel Farrell decided to move to a remote part of Ireland where he died in a fishing accident in 1979, aged 44. By that time, he was an esteemed writer, claimed by both the English and the Irish.

The story of The Singapore Grip takes us back to the Straits Settlements – as the colony of Malaya and Singapore was then called – at the end of 1941. The war is far away in Europe, and Japan so far only a menace with the United States sitting on the fence. If the brewing crisis affects the colony at all it is in the way of rising prices and the shortage of shipping.

The plot centres on the Blackett family whose wealth comes from a successful business in rubber production and trading. When the aged partner Mister Webb dies, his son Matthew is called in. He’s an idealistic young man who used to work with the League of Nations in Geneva. As the story unfolds he slowly moves centre stage, although it involves a considerable number of characters from beginning to end, including even the ill-fated commander of the Army, Lieutenant-General Arthur Percival.

Gradually, the war comes nearer. The Japanese first land on and then race down the Malayan peninsula, unstoppable in spite of all the efforts by Commonwealth troops. Singapore itself is subjected to bombing raids steadily increasing in number and intensity. Life is fast deteriorating to an extent that would have been inconceivable at the beginning of the story. Still, characters cope in one way or another, and they keep coping in the enveloping inferno around them. In fact, this slow inevitable process can be seen as the drama underlying the novel.

It comes to mind that the second book in the Empire Trilogy, The Siege of Krishnapur, deals with a similar predicament: in this case, of a small group of beleaguered Englishmen in a remote part of India. It seems that Farrell was particularly interested in and skilful at depicting such extreme challenges.

In Singapore, the story ends as we all know it has to. Only few get away: an Australian general under dubious circumstances for example, marauding Australian troops – or the very rich and unscrupulous such as the women of the Blackett family. The elder daughter and her wealthy young husband even manage to take their car with them while thousands of others have to stay behind due to lack of shipping space.

And indeed, there is a lot of social criticism in the novel, particularly of the plantation system in Malaya, although it mainly comes in the form of mild satire; and indeed, there is a good deal of comedy in this book in spite of the apocalyptic scenes described. Whatever the historical background or the implications, Farrell always tells stories first and foremost, keeping his eyes firmly on his characters: a good read, no doubt, entertaining and gripping throughout.

Gripping? The Singapore Grip? There is some speculation in the book as to what the term may mean. Although it is revealed in the end, it certainly won’t be given away here. Spoiler alert off!

J. G. Farrell, The Singapore Grip, paperback edn. (London: Phoenix, 2010). First publ. 1978 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

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