Arthur and George is a novelization of the relationship between the very famous Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the not so famous George Edalji. It is a true story and the book reads much like a journalistic account of a miscarriage of justice taken on by an indignant Doyle. From my “extensive” research (wikipedia and a short google search), the author Barnes seems to stick pretty close to the facts. His contribution to this story seems to be in the fleshing out of the two men’s characters and their motivations. In fact the first 240-ish pages of the 386-page novel is set up. We are introduced to each man separately and are led on an examination of their lives leading up to the point where their paths intertwine and the plot really begins.
This is a very British book and cultural identity is definitely a theme. George is half Indian (his father is from Bombay) who identifies himself as wholly British and rejects any notion that the things that happen to him are a result of race prejudice. Arthur is also a bit of a half-breed – half Scottish, half Irish – who seems to revel in his difference while what the world sees is a quintessential English gentleman. This idea of what it is to be “British” comes up several times in the novel and Barnes seems to view his fellow countryman with reluctant and exasperated affection.
I found the first part of the book interesting but it dragged a little. Once the plot takes off it became more engrossing and takes on more of a mystery type feel. Barnes’ characterization of the two men is interesting and he manages to make George sort of cold and difficult to like while still producing a feeling of indignation in the reader at his ill treatment. The narrative is written with an almost journalistic style, detached unidentified 3rd person, occasionally swooping in to give a closer view of each character’s internal life. I’m not sure I really liked this tone – I think it was a main reason I failed to engage with the first part of the book.
This is one of three books by Julian Barnes that has been shortlisted for the Booker prize and the writing is good. “The anchovy eggs were dispatched and Blanch Anson could sense the male restiveness farther down the table. They were eager for the curtained study, the poked fire, the lit cigar, the glass of brandy, and the opportunity, in as civilized a way as possible, to tear great lumps out of one another. She could scent, above the odours of the table, something primitive and brutal in the air. She rose, and bade the combatants good night.” This passage to me illustrates the richness of the descriptive prose, the undercurrent of mocking wit, and the “britishness” that I speak of above.
Overall, I would recommend it. If I could I would've given it 3 1/2 stars.