Wednesday, February 24, 2010

ARTHUR & GEORGE by Julian Barnes

I knew before reading this book that the Arthur in the title is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I assumed that he and George were friends, something like Sherlock Holmes and Watson. Wrong. Arthur's underwhelming ophthalmology practice affords him plenty of time to concoct detective novels, but elsewhere in England George Edalji is being prosecuted for a series of brutal crimes that he did not commit. George's father is a vicar from India, and George, an attorney himself, becomes the prime suspect, partly because of bigotry and partly because the police are just plain incompetent and need someone to blame. Did I mention that this is based on a true story? The first part of the book is a little slow, as the author sets the scene with background info on the two main characters, but then the pace starts to pick up. Arthur falls in love with a much younger woman, while his wife is slowly succumbing to tuberculosis. George's story is really the backbone of the book—his Kafkaesque trial, his time in prison, and the year after his release, in which Sir Arthur revitalizes his own life by helping clear George's name. In the background lies another important character—the English justice system. Apparently George's case helped bring about some significant improvements, including introduction of the Court of Appeals. Another side topic is the rise of spiritualism and Sir Arthur's involvement. I have mixed feelings about the séance at the end of the book, where a crowd of 10,000 is expected to rejoice at Arthur's having passed to the other side. However, the author's two sentences describing George's contemplation of joy are my favorite lines in the book, which beautifully sum up George's "stolid" life:

"In his childhood there was something called pleasure, usually accompanied by the adjectives guilty, furtive or illicit. The only pleasures allowed were those modified by the word simple."

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