ARTHUR & GEORGEJulian BarnesKnopf: January 2006Heather HoffmanMirror book criticIf Sherlock Holmes is a master of careful observation and deduction, then his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is in many ways his polar opposite. While Holmes makes a measured account of all the details surrounding him, Doyle is a self-involved, restless individual who cuts corners and becomes easily bored. Finishing off their triumvirate is George Edalji, a man who is as perceptive as Holmes, but lacks the verve and self-assurance that both Holmes and Doyle share in Julian Barnes’ (see interview this page) new novel, Arthur & George.Arthur & George is a novel based on two real-life gentlemen living in turn-of-the-century England: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and George Edalji. The first section relates the childhood and adolescence of Arthur and George in parallel narratives. Arthur’s early life is as tumultuous as it is unconventional. His father, suffering from epilepsy, is committed to a mental institution, and his mother is forced to take in lodgers to make ends meet. Meanwhile, far away in a provincial country village, George’s life is as quiet as it is orderly. His Indian father is the town Vicar. Shapjuri Edalji runs a strict Anglican household, and George is obedient and thoughtful, a model English son in a traditional Anglican family. There is a powerful contrast between the two narratives. While George, through diligence and hard work, becomes a solicitor, Arthur becomes a doctor because it is the only financially viable occupation available to him. Later in his life, he will enjoy telling admirers that his lack of skill as a doctor led to such an empty waiting room that he was able to devote the majority of his time to writing. An avid sportsman, Arthur is athletic and social with a large group of friends, and, before he is thirty, a loving wife and children. George, on the other hand, has no friends, and is quite content to remain a bachelor, living at home and enjoying the exclusive company of his parents and sister.While Arthur contends with his newfound fame and fortune as a writer of Sherlock Holmes stories, George and his family suffer terrible abuse by an unknown assailant who leaves dead animals on their lawn and writes horrible letters to his father, saying: “Every day, every hour, my hatred is growing against George Edalji. And your damned wife. And your horrid little girl. Do you think, you Pharisee, that because you are a parson God will absolve you from your iniquities?” Clearly, these are hate crimes, but the local police refuse to investigate the matter. Later, when a series of animal mutilations occur all over the village, the police, resentful of George’s attempts to find the perpetrator of the hate crimes, frame him for the animal mutilations. A court quickly finds him guilty, and he serves three years in the gaol.Barnes keeps the two men apart for most of the book, choosing to switch back and forth between Arthur and George every few pages. While this helps readers keep up with both narratives, the constant back and forth, especially as the two men have nothing in common, sometimes produces a whiplash effect. Just as readers get wrapped up in the vicious hate crimes committed against George’s family, the tale abruptly stops, and readers are flung back into Arthur’s world. Writers usually employ parallel stories to lead readers through a mystery. These two men have some kind of deeper connection, but what is it? Read on, and all will be revealed. Unfortunately, this is not the case in Arthur & George. The two men meet for the first time in the novel the same way they do in real life. Barnes does not employ any fictional license to bring Arthur and George together thematically, physically, or emotionally. Indeed, Barnes emphasizes a feeling of separateness even when the two men are speaking to each other.Arthur and George meet fairly late in the narrative, when Arthur finally decides to make the leap from writing detective stories to becoming a detective in real life, a la Sherlock Holmes. In his first case, he decides to investigate George’s claim of innocence. But even when their stories finally mesh, Arthur and George do not stay together long. Indeed, Barnes is more concerned with maintaining his dual biography structure than constructing a cohesive plot. The numerous events in the narrative have a meandering, subplot-like feel to them. Occasionally, these subplots are engaging and well-constructed. George’s experiences in the gaol and Arthur’s inspiration for the Sherlock Holmes character are particularly engrossing. Sadly, many other detours, such as Arthur’s ski trips or George’s train rides become a bit tiresome and repetitive in a novel that works best when addressing issues of race prejudice and British turn of the century politics.
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