Review: Arthur and George- Julian Barnes

I have never read a Julian Barnes novel before, and to be honest I swiped Arthur and George from the second-hand bookshop because I had a few pounds of store credit left. (I hate leaving without using it all up!) I’ve read a lot of mixed reviews and have found that readers either loved it or were disappointed by it, but for me I absolutely loved the novel; it is beautifully written, steeped in mystery and completely engrossing.

The novel opens with a pair of opposing biographies. First we are introduced to George Edalji, a half- Indian son of a vicar in rural Staffordshire who is reserved, friendless and alone. On the other hand we have boisterous Arthur who lives in the bustling city of Edinburgh- who is none other than Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the famous Sherlock Holmes books.  As boys the pair don’t even know each other, and the reader watches them growing up and leading normal lives- until something happens that causes their lives to clash with one another in a truly extraordinary way.

Arthur and GeorgeBased on a true story, George Edalji is wrongly convicted of carrying out a series of brutal and bloody mutilations on horses and cattle in his parish. Edlaji’s career as a solicitor is completely ruined after his seven year imprisonment, and his life is left in tatters that he is unable to remedy. Hearing of sincere and quiet Edalji’s miscarriage of justice, Doyle champions Edaji’s case to prove that he is innocent- the only one time in his life where he agrees to put on Sherlock Holmes’ cloak, and be the detective in real life.

Many readers have praised the novel for the gripping mystery it offers, but found that the ending was disappointing and ‘fizzled out.’ Without giving the ending away for those who have not read it, it was also not the ending I expected either but Arthur and George is a historical novel; Barnes has based the story on real events in 1903, and has relayed them as such to the reader. Other readers have also criticised the novel for not providing the biography of Doyle within the plot as they expected. I personally thought Barnes weaved the life of Doyle into the plot very well- including his failure in of pursuing the career of ophthalmologist and his time during the Boer war. The book is, I suppose, a sort of homage to the great author of Sherlock Holmes.  However I did not pick up this book expecting a full-on biography of Arthur Conan Doyle- for me, it was mostly about a man’s injustice caused by the corruption of the police force, and how the Great British Empire- supposedly- had disgraced itself by allowing it to happen.

The novel flows effortlessly as Barnes creates the world of 19th century Britain with precise and elegant prose. His characterisation is just wonderful; the reader is totally aware of Edalji’s timid and quiet nature, of the prejudice that surrounds his roots and how he has been cast as the scapegoat for the horrific crimes in the parish. Barnes also characterised Arthur Conan Doyle magnificently. I felt that I easily grasped the purposefulness of his character, his need to always be doing something. His sense of duty and what is right from wrong is also clear- he leaps into the Edalji case and shouts his innocence from the rooftops, because he wants everyone to know that he has been wrongly accused.

Arthur and George is a gripping read that Julian Barnes should be applauded for. Bringing the characters to colourful and vivid life, we follow the separate lives of two very different people and how they coincide and become friends and allies in unusual circumstances. A beautiful piece of work that exposes the corruption of the police force and the Great British law system of the 19th century, and ultimately reviving an extraordinary story from years a go.

Rating: 4/5

Do I recommend you to read it? Yes, I loved it!

Genre: mystery/ historical