I made the rather embarrassing error of mistaking J.G. Farrell for E.M. Forster, before I picked up this book. Must have been something to do with the double-initial British-sounding venerable author-like name. Consequently, I had somewhat tepid expectations from the novel Troubles...and was proved delightfully wrong.
The hero of Troubles is one Major Brendan Archer, recently released from duty in WWI. Suffering from a lack of real family, he goes to Ireland in 1919 to reunite with his 'fiancee', a girl he once kissed on a summer afternoon and never met again. The girl Angela, hilariously enough, has been writing to him all through his tour of duty, signing off, "your fiancee..."
This gave me enough indication that the book was going to be a good deal more funny than I gave it credit for. And it does deliver on that account. Angela lives in the Hotel Majestic run by her father Edward in rural Ireland; the hotel itself is run-down and now populated by various old ladies and cats, both contingents of whom neither pay nor leave.
And in essence, that is all the plot there is. Which is to say, the good Mr. Farrell is so dashed accomplished, that he can take this idea- a crumbling, once-glorious institution like the Majestic, and chart its decline along with the stories of those who come to live there, one way or another- and make a jolly good show out of it. The descriptions of the Palm Court and first tea-party scene are alone worth the price of admission.
The poor Major does manage to fall for the wrong girl, though, I will say that. The increasingly tense political situation in Ireland is also masterfully depicted. Not that I would know a whit about that, and indeed I was guilty of skimming over parts which dealt with it, but that is my own failing and doesn't take away from the narrative.
In sum, the novel scores highly on characterization, sense of place, and a rollicking yet spare sense of humor. (The episode where old Mrs. Rapapport's cat attacks the pheasant feathers on Miss Staveley's hat is among the most comical I've ever read, very close to Gussie giving away prizes in Market-Snodsbury Grammar School in a Jeeves and Wooster story). Yet, every time there is a funny thing happening, something else immediately happens to sober you up. Brings you back to earth, so to speak.
What I didn't quite understand was who the narrator was at the beginning of the book. Maybe I was daft and should have got it, but never mind. Nothing will deter me from recommending this book enthusiastically...the greatest things going for it are the sense of place- both Ireland and the Majestic-, the characters, especially Edward who is drawn with the most sympathetic strokes (and the twins, unsuitably named Charity and Faith), and the way you will want to follow along with each and every one.
I am going to read Farrell's Siege of Krishnapur next. It's set in our motherland, and I hope it is at least somewhat as funny as Troubles.