Roland's Reviews > Arthur & George

Arthur & George by Julian Barnes
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's review
Aug 10, 2010

it was amazing

In his acknowledgements, Barnes gives credit to many – the biggest credit should go to him, of course. The research he has conducted for this wonderful book provides him with a wealth of knowledge which informs the book subtly at most times. There are occasions when one feels there was a scrap of paper with information he had not used up to the point of writing a section and felt a pity to dismiss, but these are few and far between.
The story itself must have been a godsend for a writer as interested in and talented in describing the way different personalities interact.
Here we have Arthur (Conan Doyle, of Sherlock Holmes fame), a big man in every sense of the word. County class cricketer, prolific writer, champion of many causes (if not the female vote!), and yet a small boy to the end when it comes to wanting to please his mother, "the mam".
On the other hand, meet George Edalji (not pronounced "ee-DAL-ji" as he will not tire of telling you), son of an Anglican vicar of Parsee origin. George has never left his district (near Birmingham), let alone seen India. He is nearly blind, studious, pedantic. He becomes a solicitor at law and still shares a bedroom with his father at the age of twenty-five. He could be an inconspicuous, perhaps slightly boring, man, if it wasn't for the fact that his skin is dark – and that he is sentenced to three years in gaol for slitting a pony and writing vile, anonymous letters. Of course he is innocent, and yet the way things slide from his and everybody else's hands on the road to penitentiary is unbelievably well written, but never unbelievable. There is an absolute highlight late in the book when Arthur has become George's helper in trying to win back his reputation (and his right to practise law). Arthur has just about solved the case as it really was Sherlock Holmes style when in one of the "George"-chapters, the lawyer sees through Doyle's case and how the writer's conclusions are as spurious as the ones which led to his own sentence.
What is true and what only seems so is very important in Arthur & George – what do you expect in a book about the creator of the detective who died and came back. The question of what can be known and what it is possible to believe is added further significance in the description of Doyle's growing interest in spiritualism. (At Doyle's farewell – for want of a better word, for it certainly is no funeral service – in Albert Hall, some ten thousand spectators are in attendance as a medium distributes messages from those from the other side until she is finally proud to announce that "He is here" – Sir Arthur's spirit come to say good-bye, as it were. George is present, and almost won over by the medium at one point until he finds his bearings again in the real world.)
This is a very cleverly crafted, but never manicured novel. Only the way in which present simple and past tense alternate – clearly in order to transport some form of meaning – eludes this reader. Help welcome.
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