on 26 October 2005
Short listed for the Booker and certainly the best read of all six books, I found it compelling. The two characters are very well drawn. They are different from each other in almost every way and yet you feel sympathy and interest for them whilst at the same time understanding their flaws.
It almost reads like a thriller. You are so keen to find out what happens next and yet the events in the book are also treated with a comfortable safeness that is the very essence of what it feels like to live in England: big issues are there but they are normalised to hold them at bay. You feel comforted by the normality but irritated at the same time.
Barnes tackles the notion of 'how things look' and 'how things are' really well. Given that we live in such a celebrity obsessed age that only cares about how things look and believes there is truth in how things appear, then the ideas the book tackles are very relevant and real. Yet somehow the whole thing is done by telling you a really good story with complex intellectual ideas carefully woven into the narrative.
I had to ration myself the last hundred pages because I was enjoying reading it so much and particularly the chapter where Arthur goes to see Anson(?) - the best chapter in the book!It's also very atmospheric, you really do experience the smell and feel of Edwardian England.
I bought this on a whim. Longlisted (now shortlisted) for the Booker, a very nice cover, an interesting sounding plot...Boy, am I glad I did. I enjoyed this book tremendously. I've never read Barnes before, and Im glad I've put that right. This is a gripping story of two men: Arthur Conan Doyle, and George Edalji. The first half of the book centres on the two men's passage through life, from childhood to the relative firmament of adulthood. Actually, this is the most gripping half of the book. Doyle...well, we know who Doyle is. Edalji is the son of a local clergyman, and grows up into a relatively sucessful solicitor. Eventually the two men's paths cross as they're both swept up - in entirely different ways - by a series of events known as The Great Wyrely Outrages.
Arthur & George is a super book for two reasons: Barnes' accomplished, brilliant writing, the tone of which is matched faultlessly to the time-period concerned, and the portrait of the two main characters. Indeed, this is the novels central triumph, the presentation and investigation of the psyche's of both men, Arthur and George. George is, actually, by far the more interesting of the two figures. Son of an immigrant who is now a respected vicar, he's largely isolated at school, a solemn lad who largely misunderstands (or just plain doesn't get) the mysterious behaviour of his fellow children (and, later, men), and turns into a largely isolated adult as well. This makes him an easy target when a series of poison-pen letters, graffiti and other strange incidents start happening in the village of Great Wyreley, culminating in a series of cattle "rippings". He refuses, though, to accept that what happens to him has anything to do with his race.
As I say, Barnes' picture of the two men is brilliant. George is a restrained, wonderfully frustrating character (in the way of all humans), and he bears his fate with a great sense of dignity, even though he, or so it seems to the world, has none left. Arthur is fascinating too, but less so, and Barnes does get a little distracted half-way through when he concerns himself with Doyle's courting activities. This isn't an uninteresting strand, and does give nice insight into the character, but given that the book is a tad long, in the end, this could have been excised nicely and made for an even more powerful book.
Arthur and George is VERY highly recommended. It's easy to read, intelligent, and Barnes shows a clear and remarkable insight into the minds of his two characters. I have to wonder, though, if it quite deserves the Booker...somehow, excellent though the whole thing is, I don't think so.
on 24 June 2012
After reading The Sense of an Ending I was eager, no desperate, to find something else by Julian Barnes: Arthur and George, whilst considerably longer and slower than Sense of an Ending, did not disappoint. In the same way that Kate Summerscale's "Suspicions of Mr Whicher" used the murder of a child to give a portrait of the English middle classes in Victorian times, this work uses a series of livestock mutilations to throw a huge amount of insight into the mindset of Edwardian England, employing the magnificent, bombastic Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the introspective, humble George Edalji as the spotlights. As one would expect from Barnes, the writing itself was always precise and intelligent. He has a way of asking all the questions that ought to be asked and supplying enough different answers to satisfy the most diverse of readers: by the end of the book it seemed to me that he identified himself more closely with George - who wrote a modestly successful manual on the subject of railway law- than with the literary giant Arthur: which is somewhat ironic. One thing I particularly like about his style is the way he dissects elegantly a simple statement or fact and then draws out a whole host of unexpected conclusions. He is also highly skilled in portraying the drama of some of the encounters: the meeting between Sir Arthur and the police chief Anson is a masterpiece.
For me the book was not quite as perfect as Sense of an Ending: there were a few "boring bits". In the middle of the book, for example, I felt there was a period of stagnation where the description of Arthur's relationship with Jean Leckie spent too long going nowhere: cleverly written, but ultimately superfluous. The final thirty pages of the book, dealing with George's attendance at a seance in the Albert Hall, struck me as pointless: it seemed that Barnes wanted to say a few words on the subject of spiritism and used this book as a vehicle: and Conan Doyle's proclivity for the subject as an excuse. Perhaps the fault is mine for not being interested in spiritism.
All in all, despite these minor criticisms, this is a superb contribution to English literature and I am frankly amazed that anyone can juggle simultaneously with as many multiplex ideas as Julian Barnes does: indeed he seems to make it look easy.
on 16 March 2006
Arthur & George is Julian Barnes's most complete, well-rounded and fully achieved novel, and his most accessible since Talking It Over/Love Etc. And it's a book of many parts, though altogether seamless in the end. After the alternating introductions to the two real-life characters, it becomes a gripping account of second-generation immigrant solicitor George Edalji's persecution, prosecution and wrongful conviction for a series of 'horse-rippings' in Staffordshire. Then we have a detailed account of Arthur Conan Doyle and the three women in his life: 'the Mam,' who earned his everlasting (in this life and beyond, given his spiritualist leanings) love and respect for bringing up her family against the shifting seas of his drunkard father; Touie, his wife who becomes consumptive and sentences him to a life of celibacy; and Jean, his lover, who is prepared to wait for as long as it takes for the TB to take Touie...
Then Arthur and George come together, and apart, and the close of the novel is the spiritualist meeting in the Albert Hall in memory of Conan Doyle after his death. Or: his physical death... On its winding way the book takes in various aspects of the hall-of-mirrors of belief and proof; how people support one another, whether family, lovers, or merely those thrown together by chance; and the benefits of protest and the willingness to "make a noise." Barnes shows that it is lightness of touch, calm possession and lack of partial stridency which can set miscarriages of justice most blazingly alight. Edalji's case - fictionalised but true - resonates all the more movingly for its artful presentation.
And not least among Barnes's achievements is the sense, rare enough among the cleverer sort of literary fiction, that Arthur and George are brought to convincing, breathing life, are people not characters, and completely real. Which is not to be reduced by the fact that, of course, they were.
This novel is based on a real series of events which themselves seem as strange as any fiction concocted by Sherlock Holmes. The first two-thirds of the book give us, in alternating chapters, parallel biographies, with no contact between them whatever, of the two very different men, the stolid solicitor George Edalji and the bluff Arthur Conan Doyle. We have here a most subtle examination of the development of two very different personalities, and an imaginative capacity to enter into their minds. There is a degree of sensitivity in Barnes’ writing which we do not find in Conan Doyle’s. One is gripped by the psychological tensions under which each of these men labour: Arthur as he wrestled with his sense of honour towards his gentle ailing wife but also towards the woman with whom he was in love and who loved him; George as he struggled with the fate as it was enmeshing him. (Brilliant as Barnes’ verbal picture of the two men is, it is, I think, a pity that the book does not include photographs of them. The ones I have seen on the Internet are in themselves eloquent of the differences between the two men - the one the haunted face of a half-Indian, the other Elgaresque in its Englishness.)
In 1903 George was sentenced to seven years imprisonment for crimes he had not committed. The way he coped with imprisonment is surely unusual, but I found it convincing. After a campaign of petitioning from his friends, the Home Office came to the conclusion that the length of the sentence had been excessive and he was released after three years, but without his name being cleared. George and his friends continued to campaign to have his name cleared; and it was at this stage, two thirds through the book, that Arthur took up George’s case. A criticism I have of the book is that there is no satisfactory explanation why he should take up this particular case: the author of the Sherlock Holmes stories had, to his irritation, often been asked to help solve a crime, and it is said that up to this time he had regularly declined. The account of their discussion at their first meeting may be based on documentation, but I don’t find it at all convincing - odd, since nowhere else does Barnes’ dialogue fail in this way.
I have also to say that from that moment onwards, the psychological tension of the novel rather fades away and a detective story takes over, as Arthur acts in a Sherlock Holmes-like way to clear George and to identify the real perpetrator of the crimes. Thanks to Arthur’s campaign, the Home Office eventually had to give a free pardon (there was as yet no Court of Appeal, and the Edalji case contributed greatly to such a court being set up later in 1907); but did it in a thoroughly weasly way: ensuring that no one was actually blamed for the miscarriage of justice (except, by implication, George himself!), refusing to pay him compensation, and failing also to take any notice of Arthur’s identification of the true criminals leads. All this leads to a let-down towards the end of the book which as a novelist Julian Barnes would surely have liked to avoid but which was forced upon him by the historical facts of the case. The novel does not deal with the anti-climax of the next five years or so, during which Arthur failed to get Captain Anson, the prejudiced Chief Constable of Staffordshire, to pursue the true criminals. Instead, Barnes counteracts this feeling of let-down with a short, spine-tinglingly written final section about the memorial meeting for Conan Doyle (it took the form of a spiritualist s ance in the presence of over a thousand people in the Albert Hall), a quarter of a century after Arthur and George had last met. And on the last two pages of the book there are two unexpected twists to the story.
All this is set against the carefully researched social and political conditions of the period and an understanding of Victorian-Edwardian mores and mind-sets. The whole book, written in a beautifully limpid style, is a magnificent blend of scholarship and imagination. One really cares about the two protagonists as people and, as the story develops, one is kept on tenterhooks as one is by a good thriller. A real treat of a book.
on 19 July 2011
Barnes has produced a beautifully written detective story which explores celebrity, identity and race, and how these interplay with one another and the English legal system. Writing the two men's lives separately (their several meetings only begin half way through) is a wonderful device which helps Barnes explore their different views of the case (and wider world). Doyle is socially conservative but politically liberal, and has abandoned Christianity (his mother's Catholicism) for spiritualism. Edalji is also socially conservative, and similarly fails to fully connect with his father's Christianity. They both embrace `English' identity; Edalji however seems blind to the pervasive prejudice which lands him in prison, whereas Doyle casts himself as a dissenting voice within the bounds of civic England. Doyle comes to Edalji's aid, but the solicitor is not so overawed by the writer that he agrees with Doyle's analysis of the case; Edalji retains his faith in British justice. Written in the style of Victorian fiction, without the overlaboured descriptions of places and people, Barnes provides an insight into the early manipulation of public opinion in the pursuit of justice. It also contains what is surely one of the only literary (albeit brief) mentions of the first prime minister of Northern Ireland, James Craig.
Arthur and George is a fine read, but it unwinds slowly and at the end I found myself wondering why it had taken so long to tell as a story. Interweaving the stories of Arthur (Conan Doyle) - and George (unknown Parsee solicitor living a modest, quiet life) - Julian Barnes has painstakingly re-constructed a mystery and mis-carriage of justice that occurred in Edwardian England. It is beautifully done, capturing the feel of the period well in terms of style and language, but towards the end it felt a little laboured, and almost ran out of steam. Nevertheless, it's a book worthy of serious attention, and certainly will have you gripped as events unfold.
on 14 June 2006
I initially judged this book by it's cover ( being an artist I liked the design), but fortunately this flawed buying procedure turned out to be successful, as I immensely enjoyed this accomplished piece of work. It is extremely well written, with an excellent description and development of two very different but equally intriguing characters. Based on true events, it seems to have been very well researched and a bygone era is brought vividly and convincingly to life. There are many themes explored throughout the novel, guilt and innocence, the mystery of life and death, but these are skillfully woven into a plot that at times reads like a thriller. In this sense it's quite an usual book, but personally made it all the more interesting. All in all, this is an absorbing, very readable and often touching book by an obviously very talented writer.
on 2 August 2006
I was given this book as a present and was initially sceptical as to whether or not I would like it. Now that I have finally gotten round to reading it I found that it was a really delightful and absorbing read.
The plot dealing with the Great Wyrley Outrages, the trial of George Edalji and the appalling miscarriage of justice that ensued was gripping and Barnes keeps the book moving along at a good pace. The details of the police investigation and trial are interspersed with details of the life of Arthur Conan Doyle, of Sherlock Holmes fame, who subsequently becomes embroiled in the drama. The crime behind the Great Wyrley Outrages still has the capacity to shock even at this length of time and the description of the investigation and subsequent trial is compelling as one reads with ever mounting tension and dread of the failure of the legal system and of officialdom.
The imagination of the author is vividly on display throughout this book right from the begining which recounts the lives of two small boys whose paths are not to cross until much later in life.
The writing gives the outward appearance at least of being very thoroughly researched and I really had the feeling that the stories of both men were brought to life on the pages of this book. There are also fascinating insights into old fashioned values, spiritualism and the history behind the establishment of criminal appeals in England (which the case recounted in this book was instrumental in establishing).
All in all this was a thoroughly enjoyable read with the added benefit that I feel I have learned something.
on 26 March 2006
Between them, the two subjects of this fine novel by Julian Barnes embody most of the abiding characteristics of the Victorian English gentleman; Arthur is a bold, chivalrous sportsman, George a reticent, well mannered introvert.
That neither man is actually English by ancestry is one of the surprising number of similarities between men ostensibly so different. Barnes produces a beautiful study of both men, and of turn-of-the-century England.
Many if not most readers will come to the book as a result of Arthur, or more specifically Sherlock; however Holmes is reduced to a minimal role here, almost as a millstone round Arthur's neck. Instead, we find Arthur a man both driven and held back by his bullish personality; he is a man given to great projects, and to bashing down doors.
George, conversely, finds most doors locked to him, although whether this is more due to his race or to the crippling shyness engendered by his upbringing is for the reader to decide. When George is the victim of an appalling miscarriage of justice, Arthur takes him on as one of the many projects of his life. The two men spend almost the entire novel apart, indeed the book is at its strongest when each man is entirely alone with his thoughts.
There is something here for all; Holmes fans will delight in both the obvious and oblique references to the canon (surely Arthur's trip to Great Wyrley confirms the well-known Copper Beeches quote that "It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside." ) Others will simply enjoy the characterisation of two men whos lives unexpectedly intersect, with splendidly understated results.