Book Review: “Arthur and George” by Julian Barnes
The bit I enjoyed best about this book I could have ruined for myself by reading the blurb. Luckily I didn’t, so I got to enjoy the twist that there was that, probably, most people reading it don’t have because they already read the blurb and consequently chose to buy or borrow the book.
In the next couple of paragraphs I will necessarily describe this twist, so, if you might read “Arthur and George” and want the full force of the book, do not read any further.
The start of the novel has two narratives “Arthur” and “George”. I struggled initially to separate the two boys in my mind – but my third run at it from the start worked a treat – and the characters became distinct.
We had Arthur – inquisitive and creative; we had George – nervous and limited.
I initially thought that George was being characterised as on the autistic spectrum – and maybe he was. He liked familiar things and he liked structure. He found social interaction difficult. He became obsessed with trains and laws pertaining to trains – and the tone of his passages reminded me of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the night time” by Mark Haddon.
Arthur was popular, clever and passionate. And turned out to be the real life Arthur Conan Doyle. Which was the surprise I liked.
So, the novel, for me, turned from being a work of fiction, to being a historical novel. And this was interesting in ways and annoying in others.
I was tempted to sneak off to Wikipedia to see how it all turned out in the end, which, I presume, would have been fairly easy to do. I managed to restrain myself – but there was frustration in sympathy with the novelist, who, on some level, was bound by history – the cool twists and outcomes were necessarily limited by reality.
In addition, all the thoughts and feelings coursing through the minds and heart of our two main characters were entirely made up – which would be absolutely fine in a work of pure fiction – but to put thoughts into the minds of historical characters is kind of, well, awkward. Unless ACD left diaries or whatever – but who is to know the thoughts in his head about his poor consumptive wife? And I don’t have the will to research the authenticity of the thoughts. But it was a layer of awkwardness for me as a reader.
I liked the fact that the narratives were so separate and detailed – all of it interesting. The first time the tales converged, neither of them featured in the scene, so that was interesting too.
The last annoying thing was the ending which was a load of phooey – all that wondering about ACD’s interest in spiritualism and an empty chair. The whole episode was dull – and I think the book should have finished with George being at Arthur’s wedding, not at his afterlife party – so, okay, it provided the writer with a cool link to the opening paragraph, but, meh, not worth it – I hade been skimming for a while by the time I got there.
Overall though – I enjoyed this. Nice detail, good (but real) plot. Effective narrative structure. Compelling for two-thirds to three quarters.
I agree with you about not entirely accepting the fictionalizing of ACD thoughts and dialogue. I would have rather it be fiction over putting words into ACD mouth.
Historical fiction is ok as long as it isn’t too closely bound with history. I like things set in the past, but like the plot to be independent in some measure.
Oddly enough, the only thing I know about that book is the one thing you consider to be a spoiler and a twist. Hmmm.
I read half a Julian Barnes book once (History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters) but gave up when it got really boring.
That’s what I mean – If I’d bothered to read the blurb I’d have missed the best bit… which means… the novel wasn’t great?