Arthur and George are born in Great Britain in the mid-19th century, but their lives couldn’t be any more different. Arthur grows up in Edinburgh, in a shabby but intellectual and loving family, becoming an eye doctor and then a world-famous author. George grows up in rural Shropshire, tortured by farmboys due to his dark Indian skin, but nevertheless persevering to become a published solicitor in Birmingham. George is one of many; Arthur is one in a million. But when George’s life begins to unravel completely, it is Arthur who must come to his rescue, in this deep exploration of race, prejudice, circumstance, and deeply-held beliefs.
Julian Barnes recently won the Booker Prize for The Sense of an Ending, which I immediately wanted to read, but since I had Arthur and George on my shelf, I decided it had to come first. To be honest with you, that was a brilliant decision, because I loved this book. It made me think on so many levels, while at the same time providing a cleverly told story set in a fascinating part of history.
The short description I wrote about probably makes it obvious that the Arthur is question is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, ridiculously famous for creating Sherlock Holmes, a figure who resonates with us still so strongly that he’s having films and revival novels made about him. He’s less famous for his efforts to reform the law and grant justice to the wrongly accused. One of those cases was that of George Edalji, who is naturally the George in this book. Wrongly convicted of a series of horse murders and threatening letters, even though the letters threatened his own family and the mutilations continued when he couldn’t have committed them, George winds up in prison, and sends a letter to the author of the famous detective stories for help. Luckily for us – and Julian Barnes – Arthur came to help.
Knowing that this was a true story gave it particular resonance for me. The letters quoted within are real letters, including the threatening ones sent to George’s family. What was recorded has been included. Barnes has instead stepped into the minds of the characters and explored what these people might have been thinking and feeling.
In particular, this is a deep exploration of the injustice that was once inherent in the criminal system, but which invites us to work out our own prejudices in the process. We may not condemn George for his half-Indian heritage now, as these Englishmen did, but who do we accuse in his place? I’ll let you read the book to consider this for yourself, as Arthur must when he studies the suspects, but it’s the sort of book to place a reader just slightly on edge, fervently aware of how much and how little has changed.
It’s also an incredibly fascinating case study of two completely different men, who might have grown up in two different worlds, but for the cozy feel of England that seems to steep the book in tradition while carefully probing at these stereotypes that we’re still working to smash. I was kept reading, eager to learn more, and I found both halves of the narrative equally consuming, even before the central characters finally meet. It’s completely engrossing, beautifully written, and convincingly fleshed out. Very highly recommended – thank you, Julian Barnes, for getting my 2012 reading year off to a fantastic start.
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