I really enjoyed this book, and I think I liked it even more than Troubles. A fictional account of the Indian Mutiny of 1857, The Siege of Krishnapur is a genuinely exciting and sometimes funny adventure story, a subtle examination of colonialism, and a rigorous and detailed account of a particular historical moment. It’s full of fascinating digressions, about Victorian medicine for example, that reminded me a little of the detailed, non-narrative examinations of whaling techniques in Moby Dick.
The plot is relatively simple, and, like Troubles, strands a collection of British colonial characters together in a dangerous situation to see what unfolds. The characters here are gathered together in the East India Company compound in the fictional city of Krishnapur when the Indian Mutiny breaks out. The majority of the book focuses on their efforts to outlast the siege, and on the moral and ethical reflections that the siege provokes. One thing that struck me was the paucity of Indian characters, but the reason for this is, I think, clear. Farrell is not trying to speak for the Indian victims of British colonialism. That type of paternalistic writing on behalf of the subaltern belongs to an earlier literary era, think E.M. Forster’s Passage to India. The focus of Farrell’s book is the muddled, naïve, sometimes cruel, and sometimes silly nature of British colonialism. It’s an interesting approach, not hectoring, but subtle, definitely passing a critical judgement but allowing his characters to come to some realizations themselves. Disillusionment is the dominant emotional tone of the book.
The dazed Collector, the sardonic Magistrate, the vain young army officers, the disgraced Lucy, the poetic Fleury, the feuding doctors, and the frankly insane Padre are all memorable characters, and give us a great cross-section of Victorian ideas and attitudes. Farrell’s book is great because it’s not just one thing; it’s not just an adventure story, it’s not just a war story, it’s not just an examination of colonialism, or Victorian social mores. It’s all of these things, and I liked it a lot. I'm really looking forward to the third volume of Farrell's Empire Trilogy now!