Author: Julian Barnes
Details: (c) Julian Barnes 2005; Pub Vintage 2006; ISBN 0-099-49273-3
Verdict: Arthur & George is readable and incisive.
Reasons for reading it: I am a big fan of Julian Barnes, and was interested to see what he'd do with a fictional biography of Conan Doyle (one of Barnes' great strengths is mixing literary analysis with fiction, cf Flaubert's parrot).
How it came into my hands: I had a chance to dip in to some of the Cambridge charity shops this visit, though didn't manage a full scale raid. I found a couple of treasures in the British Heart Foundation shop behind the Grafton centre, where I also dropped off some of my great aunt's clothes. Being able to make impulse purchases of books is definitely something I miss about living abroad.
Arthur and George is very successful both in presenting a lively portrait of Conan Doyle, and in telling an engaging story of George Edalji's fight for justice. I appreciated the way that the narrative holds back from passing judgement on the characters, and both seem like people rather than vehicles for making a moral point. In some ways they are geek and jock, but both tendencies are presented in a sympathetic and not superior way.
The fable about racism and criminal justice is mostly kept subtle, though there is a little bit of cringey modern imaginings of historical racist attitudes. Barnes makes explicit parallels between Edalji's situation and the Dreyfuss affair, and the comparison is quite chilling. I am fascinated by the choice to stick to realism at the expense of a happy or even a neat ending; as a pure detective mystery, A&G is perhaps a little disappointing, but I think it's stronger for that. I was somewhat taken aback by the indication in the afterword of just how closely the novel is based on real historical events. Though it is clearly and unashamedly an imaginative work; the balance is in a slightly unusual place but from my point of view works well. The book seems to lean more towards creating a situation that will feel emotionally familiar to modern readers, than making a big deal out of period atmosphere, but the details do feel extremely solid all the same.
Generally it's a fun read, and I cared about the characters, and up to Barnes' usual standard of memorable scenes and turns of phrase.