At the beginning of the last century, a half-Indian, half-Scottish solicitor in provincial England was tried and convicted for the unlikely crime of mutilating a pony. Released after serving three years of a seven-year sentence, the innocent young man wrote to no less a personage than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The world-famous creator of Sherlock Holmes looked at the evidence (or lack thereof) and made it his personal mission to prove that the verdict had been not only wrong, but grossly unjust. His efforts would eventually lead to a sweeping change in the way criminal convictions could be appealed in Britain's courts.

From this small slice of nearly forgotten legal history, the ever-versatile Julian Barnes has fashioned a capacious, probing new novel. Using the raw material of this notorious miscarriage of justice as its springboard, Arthur & George a finalist for the Man Booker Prize explores the confluence of the lives of two radically different people: one a self-assured and accomplished man who relished his public success, and another who lived contentedly outside the public arena until circumstances thrust him into the limelight. As their largely separate, briefly conjoined stories unfold, Barnes offers a subtle look at issues of self-identity, societal assumptions and individual truth pitted against institutional indifference.

Though he would never see himself in that light, George Edalji is what even forward-thinking Edwardians such as Conan Doyle call a half-caste. His father, a Parsee born in Bombay, is an Anglican priest, his mother a Scot. In the small village of Great Wyrley in Staffordshire, there is a long-festering resentment about this mixed marriage, but the Edalji family is blissfully unaware of these sentiments. A good, if not stellar, student, George is a serious, somewhat timid boy with no friends among the local boys. As an adult, he returns to the vicarage to live with his family after qualifying in the law, and is happy enough until a series of strange crimes against local livestock is pinned on him using questionable evidence and specious testimony.

Outwardly, Arthur Conan Doyle is the antithesis of George. His relationship with his alcoholic father is as bad as George's with his father is good, but he rises above these messy beginnings to become a doctor and, more notably, a best-selling writer. Whereas George will never marry, Arthur marries twice, carrying on a complicated, decades-long platonic relationship with his future wife while he waits for the first to die. He is a robust sportsman, a world traveler, the consummate English gentleman through and through. And, of course, his skin is white. But Arthur and George share something that Barnes never makes explicit, leaving it to percolate beneath the surface of the novel. Of mostly Scottish and Irish descent, Arthur professes to be not quite English, though the adoring public would disagree, while George fancies himself English to the core, but is viewed by his parochial neighbors as something not quite English at all.

The men themselves never identify this bond. In the greater scheme of things, their affiliation is a passing moment they don't even meet until well into the novel. One could argue, for instance, that while Arthur's intervention clears George's record, it doesn't really do anything to change the solicitor's life. And though the investigation gives Arthur purpose after his first wife's death, it is really just a footnote on the writer's vigorous and colorful resume. The real effects of this unconventional pairing are left for the reader to discern, for Barnes is not merely resurrecting an interesting episode, he is rendering the inner lives of these two men.

Writing in a prose style appropriate to the period, Barnes has crafted a narrative that is driven forward by its own momentum. George's trial unfolds with chilling, Kafkaesque inevitability (and recalls Dr. Aziz's not dissimilar legal ordeal in Forster's A Passage to India). Arthur's systematic inquiry into the injustice, carried out with trusted sidekick in tow, is worthy of his own fictional detective's adventures. But Arthur & George draws its lasting power from something more than good storytelling. It is a timeless, beautifully told rumination on an essential question of identity of how we see ourselves, how others see us and how the way in which we deal with these often incompatible perceptions can come to shape our destinies.

Robert Weibezahl is author of the novel The Wicked and the Dead.

 

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