Barnes’ work is more than a mystery

Honore de Balzac once described chance as “the sovereign deity.” In Arthur & George, his 10th and latest novel, England’s Julian Barnes examines the tracks chance leaves on all of our lives.

Arthur is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the world-famous Sherlock Holmes. George is George Edalji, a half-Indian attorney from the English countryside.

Barnes chronicles the lives of both boys – from their maternally dominated childhoods to their divergent adult lives – in shrewd and intelligent prose. The novel, while plodding at times, emerges as a poignant evocation of everyday prejudice and the harm which it may cause.

When Edalji is disturbed from his pleasant but unremarkable life by a chain of malicious pranks and libelous letters, he is introduced to the clumsy, bigoted world of England’s country police.

Within days, Edalji’s accusations have been turned on him, and he faces a chain of accusations and circumstantial evidence supported by the strong sense of Edalji ‘s “difference” – his half-caste status.

Wrongly convicted and unjustly imprisoned, Edalji takes his case to Doyle.

By now England’s most popular writer, his Sherlock Holmes character famous around the world, Doyle regularly refuses entreaties for his own services as a detective. But recent events, culminating in the death of his wife, led Doyle to take on Edalji’s case in an effort to revitalize his usually robust spirit.

With the creator of Sherlock Holmes on his side and convinced of his innocence, Edalji takes his case back to the courts. Unwilling to stop short of a full pardon, Doyle and Edalji seek to redress the wounds inflicted by prejudice and put both of their lives back together.

While his encounter with Edalji merited only a brief mention in Doyle’s autobiography, Barnes plays the relationship between Doyle and Edalji into a gripping and emotive novel. Brought together by chance, the two develop a brief, but meaningful friendship.

Barnes vividly describes the growth of their companionship, and movingly evokes the comfort both men take in each other as they try to rebuild their lives.

Arthur and George is a tale of prejudice and friendship, of guilt and innocence.

Brought together by chance, Doyle and Edalji remain so only long enough for both to put their lives back into some semblance of normality. “In all probability,” writes Barnes, “they would never meet again.

“Still, for three-quarters of a year their paths had crossed, and if yesterday marked the end of that crossing point, perhaps George did not mind very much. Indeed, part of him preferred it that way.”

Peter Chomko may be reached at peter.chomko@temple.edu.

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