13 October 2009

Book Review: Arthur and George

Arthur and George
Julian Barnes

I've had this one sitting in the TBR pile for quite some time now. I even picked it up a few times and tried to get into it without much success. Then I overheard a rather dimissive conversation about the book at book club. Plus, years ago I had a so-so experience with Barnes' History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters. I had read the first couple of chapters--which I loved--but then got bored to the point where I didn't even finish the book. Still, when I was deciding what books to pack for our recent jaunt to Belgium and the Netherlands Arthur and George was one of the few titles I had that was in a mass market edition that I wouldn't mind leaving behind on our travels once (if) I finished it.

Much to my surprise I actually ended up really enjoying this book. The Arthur of the title refers to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes series, and George refers to Georbe Edalji, an Englishman with a Scottish mother and an Parsee (Indian) father. The novel begins with the narratives of the two men independently described in alternating chapters until their stories eventually come together. Based on historical fact, Edalji, having been unjustly accused and incarcerated for animal mutilation, appeals to Conan Doyle for help in clearing his name. Channeling Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle is able to poke enough holes in the case and is able to get enough attention in the media to eventually get Edalji's name cleared...kind of.

There is much about this book that is appealing and at times it is a real page turner. It is essentially a fascinating whodunit with hints of Sherlock Holmes set in a time when criminal investigation techniques, forensic science, and courtroom procedure made justice much more an idea than a reality. If this case were to happen today Edalji would have been able to prove his innocence even with an underpaid, overworked public defender. The characters are compelling and likeable, the circumstances of the crime for which Edalji was imprisioned are interesting and quirky, and the book has just the right amount of period detail. One aspect of the book that bored me a bit was some of the focus on Conan Doyle's interest in the paranormal. I am a complete skeptic about such things (as is Barnes perhaps?) and I am not sure it was really necessary to include all of the details about mediums and seances. I not sure if Barnes was attempting to work out some meta-narrative or he just included it as part of Conan Doyle's real life interests and foibles. Either way I could have done with less of it.

You can read some blog reviews here at The Mookse and Gripes, here at the view from chesil beach, and here at Jabberwock, or the one from the New York Times here.

3 comments:

  1. I picked this one up, read a few pages and put it right back down again. Your review makes me want to pick it up again though.

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  2. Great review. I've had this book for a couple of years and really need to get to it at some point.

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  3. Ti: I was the same way but for some reason I managed to make it work this time. I think it was the George portion of the story which initially appealed to me. I liked the kind of ho-hum detail of his schooling and early success. By the time I got through that part I was interested enough in the rest.

    3m: I have had this thing staring at me for a few years as well. Besides enjoying it, it was also kind of nice to clear it from the TBR pile. It was a bit of a mental log jam that is now cleared.

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