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Arthur & George April 21, 2007

Posted by Brian L. Belen in Books, Reviews.
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One is an ophthalmologist by training and a writer by circumstance, whose imagination spawned the world’s most famous detective and catapulted him forever into history. The other is a man of mixed heritage and humble means, an aloof lawyer that would find himself in the midst of a controversy that is by now long forgotten. That their lives intersect under truly unusual circumstances is a story just begging to be told, which is exactly what Julian Barnes does excellently in Arthur & George.

At its core is an unbelievably true story: Arthur & George depicts the events leading up to, and following, the Great Wyrley Outrages of the early 1900s. Solicitor George Edalji is convicted of a string of bizarre crimes involving the mutilation of local farm animals, despite the sheer improbabilty of his guilt. He serves part of his sentence, but is eventually exonerated after seeking help from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who goes on a crusade to prove Edalji’s innocence.

From the use of language in keeping with the period during which the events take place, to more subtle touches (for instance, the fact that the tale begins and end with a death has to be deliberate device), Julian Barnes proves himself a gifted scribe. There is an undeniably rhythmic quality to his prose that manages to draw the reader comfortably in. Yet it is this same artistry that also causes the storytelling to suffer in places. In writing what is for all intents and purposes a biography of the two title characters, there are times that the narrative would benefit from a more direct retelling of events. Further, because there is a lack of reference to source material save for a brief author’s note it is hard to shake the impression that Arthur & George is more embellishment than fact. Overlooking these excesses (if they can be called that), however, there is little doubt that Julian Barnes succeeds where most others would have failed: he takes a footnote in history and brings it to life with a flourish.

To read through Arthur & George, even knowing little more about it than the brief missives on its cover, is to delight in a story well told. It is a story of an era not too far removed from our own and from which there is still much to learn. It is a story of two men whose paths cross in the most improbable of ways. Most of all, it is a story of life imitating art: of the writer who has more in common with his characters than even he realizes, and the lawyer that has fallen victim to the very system he is sworn to serve.

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