Sunday, December 17, 2006

Arthur and George by Julian Barnes

Well, I've finally finished Arthur and George. I didn't think it was very good and I can't understand why this book is rated so highly. Some people in my book club thought it was very good, while others couldn't get into it. I was one of those people who couldn't get into it, and spent the first few chapters thinking - when is this book going to get going? It never drew me in, and I never felt any sympathy or happiness for any of the characters - it was like reading a public information pamphlet. The writing style was very "detached" and if this is Julian Barnes's best book yet, well I'm steering well clear of him from now on.

(Warning: Spoilers below)

Arthur is Arthur Conan Doyle, the writer of the Sherlock Holmes stories and George is George Edalji, a half-Indian half Scottish solicitor. The book is a double autobiography of the two men, set around the series of incidents (the Great Wyrley outrages) which take place around the turn of the 20th century.

George's father is a vicar, who is the target of abusive letters and cruel pranks. For example, an advertisement is placed in the paper saying that the entire contents of the vicarage are on sale for a knock-down price. There are other more sinister pranks involving dead animals and people prowling around their garden at night.

When a sick (in the head) person starts to mutilate animals in the Great Wyrley area, the local bumbling policemen and self-important local authorities turn to George, a very unlikely criminal. He is accused and subsequently convicted of the crimes; although his conviction seems to be based more on local prejudices than actual evidence. He is sentenced to 7 years in prison, but released after 3 years . His life is ruined anyway as he cannot work as a solicitor until his name is actually cleared.

While George has been in prison, his family and friends have been campaigning on his behalf and this continues after he is released from prison. As part of the campaign, George writes to the famous Sir Arthur Conan Doyle with a long cover letter and clippings of the various articles written about his case. Arthur who is in need of a distraction following the death of his wife Touie, takes an interest in his case and starts to "investigate".

Arthur soon comes to the conclusion that the culprits are the Sharp brothers, a pair of local no-good types, although his beliefs (as George thinks privately) are as based on evidence as flimsy as George's own conviction.

Although many eminent people have been campaigning on George's behalf, now that the famous and highly respected Arthur Conan Doyle has taken up the case, ministers are forced to conduct an inquiry and present a report to the Houses of Parliament. The report clears George Edalji, but doesn't recommend that he is compensated for his time in prison. In short - OK, he was innocent but he brought his troubles onto himself by being such a weirdo.

The Incorporated Law Society votes to allow George back in i.e. he can practise as a solicitor again. George lives out the rest of his life quietly with his sister Maud, avoiding publicity from the infamous "Great Wyrley Outrages". He never marries.

Arthur remarries and continues to write Sherlock Holmes stories, while taking an active role in politics and the social issues of the time.

As a result of this case (and other high profile miscarriages of justice) a Criminal Court of Appeal was established.

This isn't a Sherlock Holmes story where everything is neatly tied up at the end. We never really know who was responsible for the mutilations, or why the Edalji family were targeted for such vicious harassment. The two main characters are fleshed out quite well, for example we learn about Arthur's belief in spritualism and how it affected his life and work. But the writing style didn't draw me in, and I always felt like I was reading about two strangers that I didn't really care much about. It's a real slog to read 500 pages about people that you don't care about!

My other main problem is this - Julian Barnes has obviously done a lot of research but it is difficult to tell how much is fact (or at least based on memoirs and written accounts) and how much is his imagination. For a book called Arthur and George, I also expected more interaction between the two characters but they only met 4 times ( I think).

I can't recommend this book - if you are curious, borrow it from the library - but in my opinion: avoid.

Read other reviews here. And here is another account of the George Edalji case.

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