It’s impossible to write a review of Julian Barnes‘ intriguing novel Arthur & George without giving away just who Arthur and George are, and yet the slow, sly revelation is part of the book’s considerable merits. I was lucky enough to have approached it completely oblivious to the plot, marketing, or reviews. You seem to be not so fortunate.
I could say: Stop here and go read the book. I’ll wait. Come back when you’re done.
But I know you won’t listen to me on that, so I’ll just get on with it, and console myself with the fact that you’ve been warned.
Actually, die-hard fans of Sherlock Holmes may already have identified Arthur and George. Because the boy Arthur we meet at the beginning, the curious boy who “wants to see,” the boy who became a doctor and then a novelist, is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Still, even most fans of Doyle may not be familiar with the real-life story of George Edalji, accused of mutilating livestock. Though Doyle was constantly approached to apply the mind that created Sherlock Holmes to actual cases, Edalji’s was the only one he agreed to investigate.
So George is the boy we meet in the initial chapters, short chapters that alternate between “Arthur” and “George” without revealing how these two very different Victorian childhoods could possibly intersect. In contrast to young Arthur the storyteller, George is a boy who literally can’t see well, and who figuratively sees only bare facts, devoid of imagination.
The novel builds slowly to the inevitable collision of the two title characters, much later in their lives. And it is a novel, for while Barnes did considerable research, the book delves into the largely forgotten history of Edalji, and imbues both George and Arthur with fully formed personalities and motivations Barnes could not possibly find in the historic record – unless he, like Doyle, communed with spirits.
Arthur & George has the trappings of a mystery novel. We have a crime. We have a seemingly innocent accused. We have a famous novelist, creator of a famous detective character, investigating. Barnes himself, though known primarily for more stately literary fare, has written potboiler mysteries under name of Dan Kavanagh.
Yet the book is so much more than a mystery novel. The whodunnit is central to Arthur, and George, and perhaps even the reader, but the author has a larger plan in mind. The essential question at the heart of the story is the gap between what we believe and what we can prove, and the sometimes-distant relationship either of those things has with the truth.
Barnes adds questions of faith, prejudice, and social structure to the gripping tale of two men fighting for the same goal, but who see the world very differently. It’s a book both entertaining and wise, one that helps the reader see that essential question a little differently, too.
Arthur & George is available from Random House Canada.