Wednesday, 29 January 2014

The Singapore Grip by J.G. Farrell

Warning: some of the characters in this book are immensely irritating! This doesn't make it a bad book, but it did make me want to strangle Walter at regular intervals. And he's fictional. That's an accomplishment.

The Singapore Grip takes place in Singapore during the Second World War, in the weeks leading up to the Japanese attack. It focuses on the industrialists who have made their fortune there, and and many, many people who try to cling to what they consider normalcy, even in the face of imminent attack.

Walter Blackett is behind the immensely profitable rubber company Blackett & Webb. They are coming up to an anniversary of the company, and Walter is obsessed with the anniversary celebrations, and how it will show that Blackett & Webb have done nothing but good in Singapore, are unreservedly forces for good in the area and the world. Walter's belief in the goodness of capitalism, and himself in particular is set against labour unrest, and many demonstrable ways in which he and his family and others like him have enriched themselves at the cost of others, that most of what they have been good for is amassing wealth and not for, say, treating their workers well, or making sure anyone in Singapore gets a fair deal.

They've made money, and Walter doesn't see himself as a bad guy, so he figures that it is business that makes the world go round, and without him doing what he does, everyone would be much worse off. Matthew, the son of Blackett's deceased partner, Webb, does not see the world that way. Matthew is too much of an idealist, but he perceptively takes apart Walter's claims to any kind of moral high ground. Matthew, on the other hand, has ideas for where the world can go that ignore human frailty and self-interest in favour of believing that everyone would take care of each other if we only let them. Laudable, but not in any way practical.

And as the war edges closer, Matthew becomes immersed in immediate, as Japanese bombs start to fall, and his house becomes the centre for a fire brigade, and he spends his days trying to put out fires in Singapore, scorched and blackened. In the meantime, Walter continues to worry about his anniversary celebrations, and the immense amount of rubber he had waiting in his warehouses.

The Singapore Grip is an intriguing look at inertia in the face of imminent disaster, and the ways in which people cling to the normal in extreme circumstances, even at great cost, and without much heed for those around them. It is also an indictment of self-obsession of the wealthy, and their belief that what is good for them must be good for others. And it is about a city where war edges ever closer, and the question becomes whether or not they will survive the bombing or the occupation.

I can't say this is the most gripping book I ever read, but the characters are very interesting, even when I wanted to strangle them.

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