Sunday, 23 May 2010

Arthur and George by Julian Barnes

Based on recorded events, Arthur and George is a novel spanning the lifetimes of two men, Arthur Conan Doyle and George Edalji. We all know who Arthur is, but George is less well known, the son of a Parsee Vicar living in Staffordshire. Myopic, shy but hardworking, George keeps himself to himself works hard at school and eventually becomes a solicitor as well as becoming mildly famous in law circles for writing a book on railway law for the layperson. All in George’s life is not as idyllic as it seems though. George’s family is persecuted by an unknown letter writer, as is another family in the village, all be it to a lesser extent. With seeming disinterest from the police, it continues, running parallel with some horrendous mutilations on animals occurring in the village. George is arrested for the crimes, yet even with some pretty flimsy evidence, is convicted and incarcerated.

The novel is narrated in alternating sections, those that describe George’s life, and those describing the early life and career of Arthur Conan Doyle. They lead totally different lifestyles and come from totally different backgrounds. Arthur trains as a eye doctor, moves from medicine to writing, marries, has children and generally insert himself into society. We come to know a lot about is own personal character and morals, particularly after his wife falls ill, and he falls in love with another woman. I think the overriding character trait apparent in Arthur is his belief in doing what is right and honourable.

However, the crux of this novel is the fight to prove George innocent, and the efforts of everybody surrounding him to achieve this, both during and after his incarceration. Both the police case against him, and his defence is clearly se out during the investigation and trial, although it is made fairly clear to the reader that his prosecution was manipulated by the police for their own ends.

Once Arthur is involved, it becomes interesting how differently the two men approach the case. George just wants to be able to live his peaceful life, and to be able to work again, whilst Arthur wants to make a big noise and expose he corruption for what it was, as well as prove who did actually commit the atrocities. I really enjoyed this fictional Arthur using the skills he attributes to Holmes in his books to meticulously go over the evidence to produce his own take on George’s case. Even though e goes to great pains throughout the book to state he is not Holmes, he can just write a good mystery!

As well as the mystery as to who did actually commit the crimes, which is really I think what kept me reading, the portrayal of the characters, both major and minor is what makes this novel so compulsively readable. There is a very strong flavour of what it was like to be an Indian in this time in Britain, and the way people who both knew them and didn’t now them, but knew of the case reacted to them. As an added bonus, the details of Arthur Conan’s Doyle’s life, although woven into fiction, were fascinating.

3 comments:

Helen said...

This sounds great! Although I've read some of the Sherlock Holmes books and enjoyed them, I don't know much about Arthur Conan Doyle so I think I'd like that aspect of the book as well as the mystery. I'm adding this one to my wish list. :)

Thomas Watson said...

I read Arthur and George a couple of years ago, and it is a splendid novel. The characterisation is superb, and the book is infused with a real sense of altruism. It's heart-warming, but never veers anywhere near to being tacky. And if I'm honest, I had never really been a fan of Arthur Conan Doyle before, so it's certainly not just for the Sherlock Holmes fanboys.

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