Arthur and George by Julian Barnes

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Arthur and George by Julian Barnes

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: Arthur is famous. George only becomes famous because of what has been done to him, but they come together in this retelling of a miscarriage of justice. Highly recommended by the bookbag.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 512 Date: July 2006
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 0099492733

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It wasn't the cover that tempted me to read the book - it's a rather vile, yellowy-brown with a line drawing of two middle-aged men in bowler hats. It wasn't the title either - "Arthur and George" hardly sets the pulses racing, does it? It was the hot weather, unwillingness to walk to the library and this being the only book waiting to be read.

I was hooked right from the beginning.

Arthur and George is the story of two men. Arthur is famous. Even today he's one of the most-recognised names in literature and we've moved on by a century from the events which form the basis of the book. George's fame came about because of what happened to him rather than because of anything he did. They have separate lives which are told, for their pasts affect what happens when they come together and afterwards they both move on, never to meet again.

Arthur is, of course, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, who bedevilled him for the rest of his life. George is George Edalji (that's pronounced Ay-dlji, by the way - George was very particular about that), conscientious student, dutiful son, and solicitor. The two come together when George is accused and convicted of a crime he didn't commit and Conan Doyle decides that he will clear his name.

Julian Barnes spent two years researching and writing this book and the results are superb. He had no help from the Conan Doyle Estate, who are very secretive and tend not to answer enquiries. The book is not a biography, as such - although I have read biographies which contain less detail - but a fictionalised account firmly based on real events. It's biography, detection and romance all in one book and every element works well. It's also pretty true to the facts of the Edalji case with only minor changes being made to simplify the story - for instance Conan Doyle used three sub-investigators, but Barnes converts them into one imaginary character by the name of Harry Charlesworth.

The detail of Conan Doyle's life is well-documented but the skill of this book is that the man is brought to life. He was a big man is every sense of the word, honourable in his own way, but naïve and unworldly in his relationships with women. This last point might seem rather strange as he was brought up surrounded by women and always revered his mother - The Mam - to the extent of showing her his love letters. He was in the odd situation of being dominated by a woman whilst still believing that they were a lesser species.

George Edalji must have been both an easier and a more difficult character to draw. The difficulty would have been that there was less documentary evidence on which to base the character and much of what was available was quite probably biased and inaccurate. On the other hand there would have been fewer constraints, thus allowing a certain degree of poetic licence. George is a thoroughly believable and likeable character, stoic even at the depths of his troubles and a solicitor though and through. Barnes achieves the seemingly impossible - he makes a boring man interesting.

Arthur and George dominate the book but the same skill has been lavished on the minor characters. The Mam is Arthur's rock, more modern in her views than would have been expected and more than willing to condone Arthur's relationship with another woman whilst his first wife is still alive. She herself lives in somewhat ambiguous circumstances. Jean Leckie, the woman he loves but cannot marry is superbly drawn. Perhaps the only person who seems shadowy in the book is George's Scottish mother, Charlotte.

George, you see, is half-caste. He is neither the Parsee that is his father not the Scot that is his mother. He calls himself English and believes that that is what he is, but it's obvious that others see him differently. The realisation that others will always see him as being different comes as a shock to him as his boyhood as the vicar's son never prepared him for that. George would have it otherwise but race plays a large part in his story, from the automatic assumption on the part of the police that because he is different he must also be guilty, right through to Conan Doyle's casual, derogatory comment about his racial mix. It was easy to think that we'd come a long way since those days and frightening to realise that we hadn't come that far at all.

Although Conan Doyle is better known and the 'bigger' character, the story is George's story and I think this was deliberate on Barnes' part. If you've read any of Barnes' other work you'll find the style to be rather different, too, but it serves the story and sets the scene. As soon as I started reading I knew that Victoria was on the throne. The two stories - Arthur's and George's - are intercut and the balance is very good. There was never a point when I felt that I lost contact with the other story, or that one narrative was dominating. It would have been easy to concentrate on Conan Doyle and make Edalji a minor character.

This book isn't 'easy reading', but it's very readable. It's a book about guilt and innocence, about the way that George is innocent but guilty and how Arthur maintains a 'platonic' relationship with Jean, but is as guilty as if she was his mistress. It's not about the facts, but about how people perceive those facts. The book gave me a great deal of pleasure and provoked a lot of thought over three evenings and I was very conscious of wanting to know what happened next. I've only one minor quibble and I'm aware that it's a very personal point. At the end of the book there's a chapter devoted almost exclusively to a Spiritualist meeting. Spiritualism played a big part in Conan Doyle's life but I felt this chapter to be overdone.

If you enjoy this type of book with intercut narrative, you might also enjoy The Conjurer's Bird by Martin Davies which is a more light-weight read, but we'd recommend that you avoid The Athenian Murders by Jose Carlos Somoza.

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