My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I did not grow up in a house full of books. In fact, there were few on our bookshelves other than the ubiquitous King James Bible. I loved comic books, especially the Tarzan of the Apes ones. I read and reread them, and later, when I was around twelve I think, I began to discover REAL books.
The first ones that I found on my own were the Sherlock Holmes novels. I was drawn to them because I knew the name Sherlock Holmes. Even virtual illiterates could not escape the name of the great "first consulting detective" or the knowledge of his story.
The first book that I bought by myself was a volume of the complete Sherlock Holmes stories. He was my first literary love and I have remained true to him all these years later. He still fascinates me as he still fascinates much of the world, as evidenced by the popularity of modern movies, television shows, and literary pastiches featuring him.
What must it have taken to conjure up such a character? How much of his creator, Arthur Conan Doyle, is inherent in the fictional man? I get the feeling from reading Julian Barnes' Arthur & George that there is quite a bit of Doyle in Holmes.
Of course, Barnes is such an exceptional writer and such a perceptive observer of human nature that it must have been easy for him to make those connections and then to convey them to his readers. Or perhaps not. His writing seems to flow so effortlessly that the reader intuits that it was easy for him to produce it. But maybe we are not giving him enough credit. Maybe he struggles to make it all look easy. Just as there was hard work and a lot of research and experimentation behind Sherlock Holmes' brilliant deductions about complicated crimes. Or behind Arthur Conan Doyle's writing of them.
But I digress.
The Arthur in Arthur & George is, of course, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The George is the much less well-known George Edalji, a native-born Englishman of Indian and Scottish descent. His father was a Parsee out of India who became vicar of a South Staffordshire church where he served for some forty years. His mother was from Scotland. George was the oldest of three children and much was expected of him.
The book is based on true events that took place at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. It was a time when Arthur was married with two children, but his wife had been diagnosed with consumption. There was no cure, but Arthur threw himself into the fight to delay the inevitable as long as possible.
In the middle of this fight, he met and fell in love with Jean Leckie. He loved her - and she him - from afar for many years before the inevitable did, in fact, happen, and they were free to marry.
Meantime, George Edalji and his family were involved in their own fight. They were being harassed and tormented by an unknown persecutor, or persecutors, in the village. This progressed to the point that George, now a licensed solicitor, was framed for the mutilation of farm animals. The investigation and prosecution was a travesty of justice but he was sent to prison for eight years. However, he was released after three years.
After his release, he sent a letter with all the newspaper clippings about his case to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and asked for the great man's help in clearing his name. As it happened, Doyle received this missive at a low point in his life, after the death of his wife. He needed something to bring him out of himself. George Edalji's case was just the ticket.
Once again, he wholeheartedly threw himself into a fight - this time the fight to find justice for a wrongly convicted man. In some ways, the fight was the salvation of Arthur as much as George.
Julian Barnes tells this engrossing story from the alternating perspectives of George, then Arthur, and occasionally of other characters as well. From the beginning, we can see that a great wrong has been committed but that there is hope for redemption and redress. How could one not love such a story?
Barnes weaves various themes through this tale. There is the obvious one (to everyone except George and his family) of racism. It seems apparent that the contempt and disdain with which George is dealt throughout his ordeal has its basis in rampant racism, and yet, he refuses to ever consider that as an explanation. He is seriously in denial regarding the attitudes of his neighbors.
Ancillary to the racist attitudes is the theme of just how easy it is to instill ideas into the receptive minds of listeners or readers or viewers. And once those ideas are lodged there, how difficult it is to get them out.
An overarching theme for much of the book, and especially for the last third, is death. Conan Doyle became a true believer in spiritualism and the talents of mediums and uses of the seance, and he was a powerful proselytizer for his belief that death is not the end. It is merely a transition from one plane of life to another.
This is a book that is packed with ideas. They reveal themselves slowly, which might be a problem for an impatient reader. But for those who can take the time to absorb the complexity of Barnes' themes, the rewards are great.
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