Arthur and George
Julian Barnes
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Buy *Arthur and George* by Julian Barnes

Arthur and George
Julian Barnes
464 pages
January 2007
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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The quiet English village of Great Wyrley, Staffordshire, has been fraught with strange goings-on. George Edalji, son of Indian clergyman Shapurji Edalji, is being sent half-illiterate and threatening notes. Soon after, a pony is found in a field just outside of town, bleeding to death with its stomach slashed; a key inexplicably appears on the Vicarage stairs; and anonymous advertisements defaming the Edalji's materialize in the local newspaper.

George is part Parsee, but he's always considered himself indelibly English, never anything less than a full citizen one by birth, citizenship, education, religion, and profession. He is absolutely perplexed as to why anyone would want to launch a campaign of hate against his family, one seen as a respectable part of the greater Wyrley Community.

Although George has been taught by his father to tell the truth on your way through life, and that hard work, honesty, charity, love of family and inherent virtue are their own rewards, his son can't help but feel superior. As a child in school he grumbled about the low-class behavior of the farm boys, the less-smart boys he was forced to sit beside in class. A bright but shy boy, George didn't suffer fools too well - and somewhere along the line, he has made enemies.

The hate mail stops for a while, but when he qualifies as a lawyer and goes to work in Birmingham, the campaign against him resumes. He seeks an interview with the police, but they come across as injurious and prejudicial, almost spiteful; George is nave enough to never even consider racism might be playing a role. It doesn't help that to the chief of police he appears rather snotty. Soon, George realizes there is nothing he can really do to defend himself against the hoaxers and persecutors and writers of the "anonymous filth now constantly plaguing him." The police blunder away, with George intent intent on offering them sensible advice they so contemptuously refuse.

Soon there are reports of livestock attacked on the farms surrounding Wyrley. Without explanation, the police decide George is the culprit, the supposed leader of a gang on a campaign to disrupt the lives of the quiet, law-abiding country folk. A disbelieving George finds himself arrested. The Vicarage is searched; the police discover bloodstained clothing, some horsehairs on his day coat, and several anonymous letters, which they decide have been written by George to himself.

George is convinced that he will be vindicated on trial, certain that his supposed crime is just a story made up of scraps and coincidences and hypotheses. He knows the laws of England and that he can always count on their support. He knows, too, that he is innocent, but he also struggles with the sense that slowly, yet irrevocably, his story is being maligned, skewered and gradually taken away from him.

George's savior comes in the form of Arthur Conan Doyle, recently made famous by his series of Sherlock Holmes books. Arthur is at the height of his fame. He has just found his feet partly thanks to marriage and his brain, and now he is enjoying the easy embrace of eminence and high society. Arthur becomes obsessed with proving the innocence of George, whom he is positive has been convicted on misleading evidence.

Arthur is suspect of a prejudiced legal system that, designed to protect a man like George, has ultimately betrayed him. It is a system where a man's virtues are turned into his faults, where self-control presents itself as secretiveness, and where intelligence is interpreted as cunning. He is amazed that a respectable lawyer, "bat-blind and light of physique," can almost immediately be classified as a degenerate, "one who flits across fields at dead of night evading the watch of twenty constables in order to wade through the blood of mutilated animals."

Author and George is big, bold, sumptuous tale, a brazen Anglophile's delight, vividly bringing Edwardian England to life and steadily surrounding the reader with a smorgasbord of time and place. Based on real-life events, the novel is meticulously researched perhaps even a bit too meticulously - but author Julian Barnes succeeds in his steadfast desire to fully flesh out the lives of his two most complex and enigmatic protagonists.

The stupidity of the police and the inept depiction of the British criminal justice system, so easily swayed by trumped-up evidence, is audaciously depicted; even the Crown is exposed for the unabashed and prejudicial idiots they are. For Arthur, truth absolutely must prevail over disrepute in a system of legal hypocrisy where its citizens are proved both "innocent and guilty," one the bureaucrats and the politicians have spent centuries perfecting.

Arthur yearns to accomplish one thing for George: for all the lies that are told against him, the whispering campaigns, the slurs on his ancestry, and the deliberate distortions of the police and of the other witnesses, he just wants to see his new-found friend vindicated from the searing racial intolerance and appalling deeds of a legal system that has undeniably failed him.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at Michael Leonard, 2006

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