Summary and book reviews of Arthur & George by Julian Barnes

Arthur & George

By Julian Barnes

Arthur & George
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  • Hardcover: Jan 2006,
    400 pages.
    Paperback: Dec 2006,
    512 pages.

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Book Summary

From one of England's most esteemed novelists, an utter astonishment that captures an era through one life celebrated internationally and another entirely forgotten.

In the vast expanse of late-Victorian Britain, two boys come to life: George, the son of a Midlands vicar, and Arthur, in shabby genteel Edinburgh, both of them feeling at once near to and impossibly distant from the beating heart of Empire. One falls prey to a series of pranks en route to a legal vocation, while the other studies medicine before discovering a different calling entirely, and it is years before their destinies are entwined in a mesmerizing alliance. We follow each through outrageous accusation and unrivaled success, through faith and perseverance and dogged self-recrimination, whether in the dock awaiting complete disgrace or at the height of fame while desperately in love with a woman not his wife, and gradually realize that George is half-Indian and that Arthur becomes the creator of the world's most famous detective. Ranging from London clubs to teeming prisons, from a lost century to the modern age, this novel is a panoramic revelation of things we thought we knew or else had no clue of, as well as a gripping exploration of what goals drive us toward whatever lies in wait–an experience resounding with issues, no less relevant today, of crime and spirituality; of identity and nationality; of what we think, what we believe and what we can prove.

Intriguing, relentless and, most of all, moving, Arthur & George richly extends the reach and achievement of a novelist described by the Philadelphia Inquirer as "a dazzling mind in mercurial flight."

Arthur

A child wants to see. It always begins like this, and it began like this then. A child wanted to see.

He was able to walk, and could reach up to a door handle. He did this with nothing that could be called a purpose, merely the instinctive tourism of infancy. A door was there to be pushed; he walked in, stopped, looked. There was nobody to observe him; he turned and walked away, carefully shutting the door behind him.

What he saw there became his first memory. A small boy, a room, a bed, closed curtains leaking afternoon light. By the time he came to describe it publicly, sixty years had passed. How many internal retellings had smoothed and adjusted the plain words he finally used? Doubtless it still seemed as clear as on the day itself. The door, the room, the light, the bed, and what was on the bed: a "white, waxen thing."

A small boy and a corpse: such encounters would not have been so rare in the Edinburgh of his time. High mortality rates and cramped ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
The discussion questions, topics, and suggested reading that follow are intended to enhance your group's conversation about Arthur & George, Julian Barnes's moving account of the intersection of the lives of Arthur Conan Doyle, world-famous writer of the Sherlock Holmes stories, and George Edalji, a Birmingham solicitor imprisoned for dreadfully gruesome crimes.


About This Book

Julian Barnes brings his unparalleled narrative and investigative skills to the story of two men born in Britain in the late nineteenth century. Arthur, the son of an improvident father and an intelligent, capable Scottish mother, trains as an eye doctor, but becomes instead the famous creator of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson. ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse

For an unbeatable historical mystery, look no further than Arthur & George; and it should go without saying that this is a must read for Sherlock Holmes fans who are interested in the man behind the books.   (Reviewed by BookBrowse Review Team).

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Media Reviews
The Washington Post - Michael Dirda

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.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Shortlisted for the Booker, this novel about love, guilt, identity and honor is a triumph of storytelling, taking the form Barnes perfected in Flaubert's Parrot (1985) and stretching it yet again.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. The precision of the style suits the decorum of the period and serves to underline the warm, impulsive generosity of Doyle's support, which saved an innocent man from ruin. A triumph.

Library Journal - Barbara Hoffert

Starred Review. The book picks up like a whirlwind when Arthur and George meet at last; and though a few early passages can seem a bit leisurely, it finally make powerful sense to see how these men arrived where they did. A beautifully modulated work; highly recommended.

The New York Times - Terrence Rafferty

Julian Barnes has written a deeply English novel, in the grand manner, about the sorts of existential questions the English on the whole prefer to leave to the French. Arthur and George conceals its contemplation of the imponderables slyly, discreetly hiding it behind the curtains while scenes of Dickensian force and color play out in firelit rooms ... Arthur and George is finally about how Englishmen protect themselves from the heaviest emotional weather, what hard, lifelong work it is just to keep out the chill and the fog.

Daily Express - Andrew Martin

Arthur & George acquires a hypnotic force. The character study, the feel for the period and the dialogue are all beautifully done. And the way in which the police close in on Edalji is genuinely chilling . . . the mark of a true novelist.

The Independent on Sunday - Simon O'Hagan

A beautiful and engrossing work which brings together some classic Barnesian themes (love, identity), introduces some new ones (spirituality, guilt and innocence), and hangs them all on a real-life miscarriage of justice from 100 years ago that was always going to be a gift for the first writer to spot its potential for re-imagining . . . We are in a late-19th century world of fob chains and propelling pencils, of order, duty, and propriety. But dark forces are at work, and the manner in which George becomes a victim of them is all the more shocking for the elegance and restraint of Barnes's narrative voice . . . It's like seeing Henry James turned loose on The Shawshank Redemption.

The Scotsman - David Robinson

One of the year's finest novels . . . This is the kind of book Arthur Conan Doyle could never have written (far deeper psychological insight, far more sophisticated use of irony and awareness of the limits of fiction), yet it has all of the master's narrative panache.

The Times - PD James

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 of a real-life detective story. This novel is Barnes at his best.

Evening Standard - David Sexton

What Barnes has done is to imagine, describe and dramatise this true story with fantastic control and subtlety . . . probably Barnes's best yet.

The Sunday Telegraph - Caroline Moore

Excellent . . . Both meticulously researched and vividly imagined, both gripping and thoughtful . . . You will turn the pages with mounting and almost intolerable tension.

Reader Reviews
Roger Oldfield

Arthur and George: the truth
It's a very fine novel. As an expert on the Edalji family, though, I spent the whole time thinking about the extent to which it reflects the historical record. There are points at which it departs deliberately from actual events, and there are ...   Read More

bob

Amazing historical fiction
If you enjoy historical fiction or mysteries you should enjoy this book. This is an interesting story and well written. Mr Barnes' ability to move back and forth between 'Arthur' and 'George' is remarkable---the nuances of personality that he is ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

About the author: Julian Barnes was born in Leicester, England, in 1946,  Over the past 30 years he has written novels, non-fiction, short stories and two series (one in his own name and one as Dan Kavanagh).  He has won a number of literary prizes and has been nominated for the Booker Prize three times.  In France, he is the only writer to have won both the Prix Médicis and the Prix Fémina, and in 2004 he became a Commandeur de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.

Partial bibliography (novels & collections)
Metroland (1980)
Before She Met Me (1982)
Flaubert's Parrot (1984)
Staring At the Sun (1986)
A History of the World In 10 1/2 Chapters (1989)
The Porcupine (1992)
Cross Channel: Stories ...

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