At the beginning of the last century, a half-Indian, half-Scottish solicitor in provincial England was tried and convicted for the unlikely crime of mutilating a pony. Released after serving three years of a seven-year sentence, the innocent young man wrote to no less a personage than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The world-famous creator of Sherlock Holmes looked at the evidence (or lack thereof) and made it his personal mission to prove that the verdict had been not only wrong, but grossly unjust. His efforts would eventually lead to a sweeping change in the way criminal convictions could be appealed in Britain's courts.
From this small slice of nearly forgotten legal history, the ever-versatile Julian Barnes has fashioned a capacious, probing new novel. Using the raw material of this notorious miscarriage of justice as its springboard, Arthur & George—a finalist for the Man Booker Prize—explores the confluence of the lives of two radically different people: one a self-assured and accomplished man who relished his public success, and another who lived contentedly outside the public arena until circumstances thrust him into the limelight. As their largely separate, briefly conjoined stories unfold, Barnes offers a subtle look at issues of self-identity, societal assumptions and individual truth pitted against institutional indifference.
Though he would never see himself in that light, George Edalji is what even forward-thinking Edwardians such as Conan Doyle call a "half-caste." His father, a Parsee born in Bombay, is an Anglican priest, his mother a Scot. In the small village of Great Wyrley in Staffordshire, there is a long-festering resentment about this mixed marriage, but the Edalji family is blissfully unaware of these sentiments. A good, if not stellar, student, George is a serious, somewhat timid boy with no friends among the local boys. As an adult, he returns to the vicarage to live with his family after qualifying in the law, and is happy enough until a series of strange crimes against local livestock is pinned on him using questionable evidence and specious testimony.
Outwardly, Arthur Conan Doyle is the antithesis of George. His relationship with his alcoholic father is as bad as George's with his father is good, but he rises above these messy beginnings to become a doctor and, more notably, a best-selling writer. Whereas George will never marry, Arthur marries twice, carrying on a complicated, decades-long platonic relationship with his future wife while he waits for the first to die. He is a robust sportsman, a world traveler, the consummate English gentleman through and through. And, of course, his skin is white. But Arthur and George share something that Barnes never makes explicit, leaving it to percolate beneath the surface of the novel. Of mostly Scottish and Irish descent, Arthur professes to be not quite English, though the adoring public would disagree, while George fancies himself English to the core, but is viewed by his parochial neighbors as something not quite English at all.
The men themselves never identify this bond. In the greater scheme of things, their affiliation is a passing moment—they don't even meet until well into the novel. One could argue, for instance, that while Arthur's intervention clears George's record, it doesn't really do anything to change the solicitor's life. And though the investigation gives Arthur purpose after his first wife's death, it is really just a footnote on the writer's vigorous and colorful résumé. The real effects of this unconventional pairing are left for the reader to discern, for Barnes is not merely resurrecting an interesting episode, he is rendering the inner lives of these two men.
Writing in a prose style appropriate to the period, Barnes has crafted a narrative that is driven forward by its own momentum. George's trial unfolds with chilling, Kafkaesque inevitability (and recalls Dr. Aziz's not dissimilar legal ordeal in Forster's A Passage to India). Arthur's systematic inquiry into the injustice, carried out with trusted sidekick in tow, is worthy of his own fictional detective's adventures. But Arthur & George draws its lasting power from something more than good storytelling. It is a timeless, beautifully told rumination on an essential question of identity—of how we see ourselves, how others see us and how the way in which we deal with these often incompatible perceptions can come to shape our destinies.
Robert Weibezahl is author of the novel The Wicked and the Dead. Copyright 2006 BookPage Reviews.
Kirkus Reviews 2005 October #1
British author Barnes's deeply satisfying tenth novel, based on a turn-of-the-century cause célÃ¨bre.In 1906, Arthur Conan Doyle, the renowned creator of Sherlock Holmes, was roused to passionate indignation on behalf of a sedentary-and extremely near-sighted-lawyer named George Edalji, who was disbarred and imprisoned after being convicted of mutilating farm animals. Doyle's investigations-which lifted him out of the despondency occasioned by the death of his first wife-confirmed that the Edalji family had long been a target of police persecution. Doyle's widely read articles and petition to the Home Secretary offered new evidence of Edalji's innocence and suggested the identity of the actual criminal, resulting in the overturning of Edalji's conviction, his re-admission to the bar and the establishment of the Court of Criminal Appeal. As enthralling as Barnes's fictionalized account of these events is, with its satisfyingly morbid Victorian elements-the anonymous threats reprinted here verbatim, the dead birds strewn on the Edaljis' lawn, the vicar's odd practice of locking his son in his bedroom every night well into adulthood-detection is only one component of the novel. The author also respectfully narrates the parallel lives of two Victorian gentlemen: George Edalji, whose Apollonian downfall was to trust too much in the rationality of his fellow citizens; and Arthur Conan Doyle, who, when logic took him only so far, made the great Dionysian leap into spiritualism. Like his favorite writer, Flaubert, Barnes is a connoisseur of middle-class normalcy, which he chronicles with loving attention to the peculiarities of bourgeois life subsumed under its sheltering cloak of good order. His past novels have been praised for their brilliance but occasionally faulted for a dry style overburdened with detail. Here, with a mystery at the heart of the narrative, every detail is a potential, welcome clue. The precision of the style suits the decorum of the period and serves to underline the warm, impulsive generosity of Doyle's support, which saved an innocent man from ruin.A triumph.First printing of 100,000 copies Copyright Kirkus 2005 Kirkus/BPI Communications. All rights reserved.
Library Journal Reviews 2005 September #1
George grows up a poor vicar's son and eventually crosses paths with Arthur, who grows up to create Sherlock Holmes. With a 100,000-copy first printing and a ten-city tour. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal Reviews 2005 November #1
As all Sherlockians know, in 1906 Arthur Conan Doyle took on the case of George Edalji, a reserved young lawyer, half Scottish and half Indian, who was wrongly accused of mutilating animals--and in the process helped set up Britain's Court of Appeals. Perhaps it is not so surprising that the author of Flaubert's Parrot would choose to reconstruct not just this case but the lives of both participants; what is surprising is the almost deadpan way he does it--and that his approach works so well. Barnes tells the life stories of Arthur and George with almost clinical precision, alternating between them from school age on. The storm gathers slowly; one learns the details of the mutilations and how the case was built so incongruously against the upright and deeply myopic George, even as Arthur is whiling away his time as famed writer and romancer of Miss Jean Leckie. The book picks up like a whirlwind when Arthur and George meet at last; and though a few early passages can seem a bit leisurely, it finally make powerful sense to see how these men arrived where they did. A beautifully modulated work; highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 9/1/05.]--Barbara Hoffert,Library Journal[Page 63]. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Arthur is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, physician, sportsman, gentleman par excellence and the inventor of Sherlock Holmes; George is George Edalji, also a real, if less well-known person, whose path crossed not quite fatefully with the famous author's. Edalji was the son of a Parsi father (who was a Shropshire vicar), and a Scots mother. In 1903, George, a solicitor, was accused of writing obscene, threatening letters to his own family and of mutilating cattle in his farm community. He was convicted of criminal behavior in a blatant miscarriage of justice based on racial prejudice. Eventually, Sir Arthur ("Irish by ancestry, Scottish by birth") heard about George's case and began to advocate on his behalf. In this combination psychological novel, detective story and literary thriller, Barnes elegantly dissects early 20th-century English society as he spins this true-life story with subtle and restrained irony. Every line delivered by the many characters--the two principals, their school chums (Barnes sketches their early lives), their families and many incidentals--rings with import. His dramatization of George's trial, in particular, grinds with telling minutiae, and his portrait of Arthur is remarkably rich, even when tackling Doyle's spiritualist side. Shortlisted for the Booker, this novel about love, guilt, identity and honor is a triumph of storytelling, taking the form Barnes perfected in Flaubert's Parrot (1985) and stretching it yet again. 100,000 first printing; 8-city author tour . (Jan.)[Page 49]. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Adult/High School -This novel tells the tale of two real men: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, and George Edalji, an English lawyer of Indian descent. Their lives crossed when Edalji asked Doyle for help following Edalji's unjust conviction for mutilating horses. The narrative moves toward that point, which is in many ways merely the framework that allows Barnes to develop the interior stories of two unusual figures in Victorian and Edwardian England. His Doyle is a latter-day knight-errant, with all the failings and foibles one might expect; Edalji is the model Englishman with an inherent faith in the legal system and race is something that he cannot imagine could matter. Barnes has created two fully realized characters, and readers cannot help but sympathize with them.-Ted Westervelt, Library of Congress, Washington, DC[Page 191]. Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.