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the complete review - fiction
Arthur & George
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B+ : solid, enjoyable, but oddly restrained
See our review for fuller assessment.
Impressed, if generally not bowled over.
From the Reviews:
- "This engaging tale is as pleasing a read as they come, and yet it is also the chance to admire the skillful work of a top contemporary novelist. (Sort of the literary equivalent of low-fat, calcium-enriched yogurt that somehow tastes exactly like chocolate cheesecake.)" - Marjorie Kehe, Christian Science Monitor
- "Don't expect a dance of ideas or a virtuosic concert of voices. Not that they're exactly missing, but there is less sparkle. Aptly so, perhaps." - The Economist
- "While Arthur is the more colorful character -- and he was certainly the more successful man -- Barnes' George, thoughtful and cautious, is the greater creation, a tragic yet strangely noble little figure who may linger in your memory long after you have closed this marvelous book." - Jennifer Reese, Entertainment Weekly
- "Rather surprisingly, given his previous record of writing sharp, brisk fiction, Barnes has decided to mould the tale into a leisurely historical novel in which we chunter through conversations at a snail's pace and original letters and articles are reproduced verbatim. (...) To say the novel can feel heavy-handed does not mean it is tedious; it is a pleasant journey (.....) Although this novel is never less than intelligent, it is rarely much more than that either." - Natasha Walter, The Guardian
- "The historical context has a satisfying solidity, or at least plausibility. Barnes writes with schoolmasterly authority, quelling any hint of indiscipline in his fictional universe, and with a clarity that is hugely impressive. (...) As so often in his novels, he reminds us that history is inexact, partial and fanciful, that it is concerned with fiction as much as fact. The mechanics of detection, the due processes of the law, the soothing claims of spiritualism -- nothing is quite what it seems. Yet for most of the time this beguiling and enormously readable novel seduces us into believing it all makes sense." - Andrew Taylor, The Independent
- "The core of the novel -- the dark goings-on in the shires, the miscarriage of justice, Arthur's attempts to right wrongs -- is a monument to unobtrusive skill, perceptive characterisation, humour and sheer hard work. (...) But oddly enough, in throwing off the long-standing urge to intrude, Barnes seems to have gone too far the other way. There is simply too much of Arthur & George." - Theo Tait, London Review of Books
- "Arthur & George is a beautifully crafted novel, as one would expect from a virtuoso like Barnes (.....) Yet the book, for all its compulsive readability, is also curiously depthless. There is a gulf between its fine attention to historical detail and its rather inconsequential subject matter. (...) There is a great deal to be admired in this lucid, sophisticated narrative, but one can see why it didn't win the Man Booker Prize." - Terry Eagleton, The Nation
- "Arthur and George is as sprightly and acute a biography of Doyle, and as touching a sketch of the persecuted Edalji, as anyone would wish for. Their unusual pas de deux is cunningly balanced. (...) If anything, the surprise is that the novel is not more slippery and evasive. Much of it is straight courtroom drama, and Barnes handles it so neatly that the climax is almost a disappointment." - Robert Winder, New Statesman
- "Itís also sad that Arthur and George are such unarousing characters, dead center in a narrative structure thatís obliged to shuttle from one to the other in a steady chronological march. Thereís a sense of period, but itís the 1890ís (...) What an ending there might be if Holmes himself, or Holmesian deductive lightning, were suddenly found to be crazed or wrong. But Julian Barnes dodges that moment in a book where heís persuaded himself to sound like Dr. Watson." - David Thomson, The New York Observer
- "Though Arthur & George is smoothly written and professionally assembled, it's a ponderous performance (.....) The sections where this novel does take flight are those in which Mr. Barnes seems to have taken imaginative liberties, fleshing out gaps in the historic record or simply embroidering known facts (.....) (A) serviceable but decidedly sluggish book." - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
- "Arthur and George isn't interesting merely for its intelligible and clever story. As in every first-rate novel, its essence, its best self, is felt as a kind of spectral presence (.....) The true subject of Arthur and George, the ghost in every corner of its stately narrative structure, is the yearning for clarity" - Terrence Rafferty, The New York Times Book Review
- "His prose, and, particularly, his facility with dialogue, is a kind of homage to the stateliness of late Victorian letters and, in particular, to the creator of Sherlock Holmes, whose great gift was his ability to embed his narrative in speech. (...) In some ways, Arthur & George is a kind of parable: the ophthalmologist lending his powers of observation to the near-blind, but if Barnes has a theme beyond the excavation of the gripping mystery at his novel's heart, it is the nature of Englishness." - Tim Adams, The Observer
- "Barnes evokes an entire world, and it is this sense of cultural possibilities and constraints, the freedoms they might make possible and the havoc they can wreak, that makes reading Arthur & George such a rewarding experience. (...) This novel is among the very best to arrive from England in recent years." - Stephen Bernstein, Review of Contemporary Fiction
- "Arthur is the name attraction in this story, but George is Barnes' greater creation. (...) Barnes enjoys teasing out the many minor ironies in the case" - Laura Miller, Salon
- "Barnes' novel contains as many facets as a well-cut diamond: biographies of Barnes' two eponymous protagonists, a wonderful study in contrasts; a dark, blood-boiling story of xenophobia, scapegoating and persecution; a courtroom drama; a love story; a history of spiritualism's unlikely rise from rationalist roots; and a vivid portrait of Edwardian England." - Heller McAlpin, San Francisco Chronicle
- "Barnesís prose is lucid but slightly antiquated; there are no self-conscious flourishes, just a subtly crystallised sense of earlier ways of looking at the world. (...) The whole book is thoroughly involving and full of particulars. But somehow I came to the end of it feeling that some kind of clinching artifice -- something beyond wonderful writing and great sensitivity that might have transformed the tale and lifted it onto the plane of art -- had been approached but not quite achieved." - Sebastian Smee, The Spectator
- "Barnesís suave, elegant prose -- alive here with precision, irony and humaneness -- has never been used better than in this extraordinary true-life tale, which is as terrifically told as any by its hero Conan Doyle himself." - Peter Kemp, Sunday Times
- "Barnes appears to have been overwhelmed by his research. (...) George is less than convincing, and the Holmesian spirit is altogether lacking. There is a sense of strain and imbalance, and an ominous crunching sound, as of tinny social realism buckling beneath a fairly solid chunk of fictional biography -- an overwhelming sensation, to finish the metaphor off entirely, of ill-matched wrestling opponents leaning exhausted on a sadly absent referee." - Lewis Jones, The Telegraph
- "(I)t is both meticulously researched and vividly imagined, both gripping and thoughtful. (...) His book is partly about the pain and uncertainty that comes with the crumbling of old certainties (belief in orthodox religion, in the Empire, in codes of sexual honour and the impartiality of British justice); but also celebrates human goodness and trust." - Caroline Moore, The Telegraph
- "From the first paragraphs we know ourselves to be in the hands of a major novelist and are borne forward by a compelling narrative, beautifully controlled, which combines the satisfactions of biography, social history and the excitement and ratiocination of a real-life detective story. This novel is Barnes at his best." - P.D.James, The Times
- "Yet the story is girdled round with so many frames, caveats, diversions, parentheses and asides that it is never allowed to build up momentum. The criticism that has dogged Barnes's career -- that he is more essayist than fiction writer -- sometimes applies here, as his digressions, musings and philosophizing hobble any chance for the narrative to acquire conviction. With the literary novelist's disdain for genre, he tosses away the chance to work up the material into a meaty mystery, a detective story, a courtroom drama. There is surely no shame, nothing unworthy or philistine in making the reader turn the page not as a matter of mild curiosity but out of a fervent desire to know what happens next. Doyle, one suspects, might have had some suggestions." - Jon Barnes, Times Literary Supplement
- "A deft blend of genres -- thriller, courtroom drama, biography, romance -- Arthur & George never proves less than dexterous. As in previous books, Barnes negotiates the actual and the imagined effortlessly. And yet, there's a hollowness, or perhaps hermeticism, at the novel's core." - Alexis Soloski, The Village Voice
- "Barnes's writing is, as usual, masterly throughout Arthur & George, not only as the pages shift from one man's consciousness to the other's but also in the way their author keeps the reader on edge. Facts are interpreted, then reinterpreted; the bigoted speak convincingly; nothing turns out quite as expected; and even the book's coda delivers a final shock. Most of all, though, Barnes knows how to control readers' reactions" - Michael Dirda, The Washington Post
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
Arthur & George tells two life-stories that, for a time, intersected; it is a fiction based closely on actual events.
The characters of the title are Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, and George Edalji, a man who "had wanted to be known as a lawyer, and he had ended up being known for a miscarriage of justice."
It is the miscarriage of justice that is also the focal point of the novel, with Doyle's role in trying to set things right presented as a significant episode in his life as well.
But Barnes takes his time in getting to it.
Barnes carefully sets the stage, describing his two characters and how they became the men they turned into.
Doyle's medical training (he became an eye doctor, though never a very successful practitioner), his concern for his mother's welfare (as his father was of the entirely unreliable sort), and an interest in spiritualism that would continue to grow are among the areas covered.
Edalji's background, as the son of a vicar (who had been born a Parsi in India, but married a Scottish woman), living in fairly humble, rural circumstances, with no friends and concentrating only on his studies, is also fairly intriguing.
Barnes doesn't skimp on background, though his focus is selective -- Sherlock Holmes figures much less in Doyle's life than one might imagine, for example.
When Edalji was still a youth his family was already targeted by a prankster cum stalker who did his best to make their lives miserable, especially by doing things in their name: sending letters summoning people to the vicarage or posting newspaper advertisements of things or services for sale in their name.
Clever stuff, really, and amusing were it not for the human toll -- but the harassment did come to a stop.
For a while.
Edalji successfully embarked on a law-career, though he continued living at home (still sleeping in the same room as his father).
Eventually bad things started happening in the neighbourhood again, most notably cruel attacks on local animals.
The police suspected George of the crimes (for no particularly good reason, beyond perhaps that he is an odd character that doesn't really fit in), and eventually they arrested him for one of the attacks.
He was tried and, amazingly, convicted, on the basis of evidence that was circumstantial and a theory of the crimes that was, to say the least, far-fetched.
Eventually, Edalji is released early from prison (after only three years, during which time his family and others had constantly tried to get him released), and it's then that Doyle gets involved, certain that there has been a miscarriage of justice and eager to see justice done (in the form of getting Edalji truly exonerated, as well as getting him compensation).
Doyle is a successful man, and fairly happy with his cricket-playing and his life.
But not everything is going right: his wife comes down with consumption, and lingers on for years, making for some love-torn hardship as Doyle finds another love-interest who he can not immediately devote himself entirely to -- and who, once he can, he isn't entirely sure he really wants to any longer.
The Edalji case is cause he can throw himself into wholeheartedly, and he does.
There's a bit of Sherlock Holmes to the case -- an entertaining if very bizarre mystery, not helped by the fact that the nasty police are blind to much of the obvious, and continue to believe in the awkward and unlikely story of Edalji as the warped criminal mastermind behind all of this.
Barnes tells a good story: these are rich and well-developed characters, flawed and human and thus all the more convincing.
Neither Arthur nor George is completely likeable, and both act awkwardly if not outright misguidedly on occasion.
Their difficulty in dealing with others -- even Doyle's assuredness does not always make him the best interlocutor, and he's certainly unsure of himself on some levels with regards to dealing with the women in his life -- leads to many of the problems they face.
Both are almost fatally sure of themselves, practically never wavering that what they do is the right thing to do -- and the rare occasions when they are in doubt thus are all the more disconcerting for them.
It's not just the two title-figures that impress; Barnes does the detail very nicely, and from Doyle's two wives (and his Watson-like assistant) to the various locals the characters impress.
The story, too, moves along well enough -- and yet it almost never really gets going.
Arthur & George is over-full in many respects, and the before and after of the title-characters' lives, while interesting, takes something from the central case itself.
There's so much, often wonderful material here, and yet it doesn't all add up.
Doyle's growing spiritual fascination and George's in so many ways solitary existence are intriguing, yet too much becomes suggestive, without offering answers.
Arthur & George is a solid piece of work.
It holds the reader's attention, it tells some good stories (and an historically interesting one), and offers some (perhaps too many) insights into that age.
Yet much as it jumps back and forth, for the most part, in short sections following either one or the other character (as well as, occasionally, some of the others involved) the novel never seems entirely sure of what story it is meant to tell.
Agreeable, but not entirely satisfying.
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Arthur & George:
Other books by Julian Barnes under review:
Other books of interest under review:
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About the Author:
English author Julian Barnes was born in 1946.
He is the author of several highly acclaimed novels.
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© 2006-2015 the complete review
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