Thursday, December 13, 2007

Arthur & George

I've just finished reading Julian Barnes' book Arthur & George. Normally when telling people how to write a decent critical essay I'd tell them to include the genre of the piece under discussion in this opening sentence, but I'm slightly foxed by this one. It's based on what happened when a young lawyer of mixed Parsee/Scottish parentage (the George of the title) was imprisoned for what seemed like a very unlikely crime and on his release had his case investigated by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle of Sherlock Holmes fame.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. The writing is wonderfully polished, the observation acute, the insights fascinating. It has all the hallmarks of fiction - the direct speech, the glimpses into unspoken thoughts, even the omniscience on the part of the author that can annoy if one is looking for a constant perspective, or even a two-way split as suggested by the title. And yet it is not fiction, insofar as the story is concerned. I think this is why I felt somewhat stranded by the conclusion, even though the narrative in the closing pages is among the most gripping of the whole book.

However, most of the time I felt involved in a Holmesian mystery - and found that the parallel lives offered respite to a reader who tends to fall asleep in mid-page, in that the chapters, especially in the early stages, are brief and let us gradually come to know Arthur and George as they grow up. And even when we feel we know George in this fashion, there is always something not told - so the outcome is by no means predictable.

And the insights into the famous author's personal life are revelatory!

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