Flabby round the edges

Arthur & George
by Julian Barnes

The only other Barnes book I’ve read was Flaubert’s Parrot, which is about 100 pages long, so this great heavy thing is a bit of a change and yet in many ways the same. It’s based on actual historical events, drawn heavily from police records, diaries, letters, newspapers etc, relating to some very famous people at the turn of the twentieth century. It was shortlisted for the 2005 Man Booker prize and for a while it seemed to be everywhere and yet I somehow picked this up without having a clue what it was about, which I’m glad of.

My reaction to this book fluctuated a lot while reading. I borrowed it from the library (my first library loan since leaving university, and I only went there to try out the cafe, which turned out to be closed) and at several points I found myself wishing I’d bought it because I was enjoying it so much, only to change my mind a chapter or two later and be relieved that I’d not spent any money on it.

Why the variation? It’s a well written book, with some brilliant turns of phrase and some of the best characterisation I’ve encountered in a while but the same excruciatingly slow build-up that results in those thoroughly fleshed out, believable characters also means that the storyline drags. A lot. Although there are events that are the intended focal point of the story, they get a little lost among everything else that is detailed, often minutely. And that could be deliberate. The George of the title is a very detail-oriented person, for one thing. But this is also, to some extent, a detective story and every detail could turn out to be vital. Or to be a red herring.

The story follows the two title characters in turn, with occasional joint chapters when their paths cross, which is an effective way of pointing out the similarities and differences between their lives, but the timeline was not entirely linear and it became clear that it was carefully constructed so that information was revealed in a specific order, deliberately leading the reader to react one way and then another.

Partly because I came to this book so free from spoilers, partly because I believe it’s written in a way that suggests certain details are intended as clever twists that shouldn’t be given away by reviewers, I can’t mention some of the things that I most want to talk about without a big fat ** spoiler alert **, so here it is: DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER if you haven’t read this book and think you might want to. Okay?

So, this may in fact be widely known by everyone except me (me about two weeks ago, that is) but the Arthur of the title is Arthur Conan Doyle and this book is a sort-of novelised biography of him, from birth to death, concentrating in particular on a criminal case that he got involved in when he decided that there had been a miscarriage of justice. It was big news at the time, with headlines screaming “Sherlock Holmes investigates” and led to the creation of the Court of Appeal. It’s quite amazing that the story isn’t better known, really. Anyway, I’m a big Sherlock Holmes fan and fascinated by anything related, so I was saddened to discover that I didn’t like the depiction of Doyle presented here. I liked the story of his childhood, told concurrently with that of George, despite it later being revealed that George was actually almost 20 years his junior, and I empathised with some of the events in Arthur’s life, but he comes across as a self-absorbed, brash person with some rather backward misogynist ideas, even for the time.

George is a cold, and yet curiously sympathetic character. He of course suffers from a great miscarriage of justice, so there’s that in his favour, but I felt that for much of the book the possibility that he might in fact be guilty was kept alive and there were a few occasions when I wondered if that was why these events have been forgotten. The fact that George’s surname is Edalji, inherited from his Indian-born father, is saved until a long way into the book. By this point George has spent his childhood and early adulthood suffering from various forms of bullying and with hindsight it seems likely that the colour of his skin was at least a factor, but by not being aware of that fact at the time the reader is led to be curious about why George is continually picked on and called “not quite right”. Maybe Barnes chose this route because George himself states later on that he doesn’t think race was a factor, or at least not the main factor, in his victimisation, and he considers himself as much an Englishman as any other man born in England. Is he being generous to his torturers with this statement or is he in fact more astute than others who jump to the “it’s racism” conclusion just because he’s not white?

In all, this was certainly absorbing, as the tagline on the cover promised, but it did suffer a little from including too much beyond the end of the Edalji case. There’s a long section at the end set after Arthur’s death that I felt was entirely extraneous. I lost the sense of pleasure I had built up and closed the book for the last time feeling mostly bored. It’s a real shame because for long sections of this book I loved it.

Published 2005 by Jonathan Cape.