Review : Arthur & George by Julian Barnes

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Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction 2005

Plot Summary :

While Arthur ( Sir Arthur Conan Doyle ) does not need any introduction , George will definitely need one . George Edalji ( pronounced Ay-dl-ji ) , an English solicitor  was the son of the Vicar of  Great Wyrley , Shapurji Edalji . Shapurji was a Parsi convert from India who married a woman of Scottish descent and the niece of a brother clergyman . Wikipedia says that the appointment to the position of  Vicar at St . Mark ‘ s  ( Great Wyrley ) was a wedding present from Mrs . Edalji ‘ s uncle .

When the Edaljis begin to receive vicious anonymous letters , the family puts it down to racial prejudice . They appeal to the police , to no less than the Chief Constable , but to their dismay he appears to suspect George of being the letters’ author . Then someone starts slashing horses and livestock  . Again George becomes a key suspect for the GW police force who seem to set their eyes no farther than the Vicarage and its inhabitants , primarily George who has acquired some Boo Radley-esque reputation among the members of the local police force , thanks to the Chief Constable ‘ s wariness about his Parsi antecedents .   After a particularly gruesome slashing of a pit – pony , he is arrested and , on the flimsiest evidence , sent to trial , found guilty and sentenced to seven years’ hard labour . However , he was  released after serving  three years . . .

Arthur is mourning his first wife ( having been in love for the past ten years with the woman who was to become his second ) when he gets to know about the Edjali case from an ‘obscure newspaper article ‘ which was a statement of the case . Atleast that ‘ s what , he would say in his autobiography . Actually , George wrote to him a covering letter enclosing all the relevant newspaper articles including the one Arthur referred to in his autobiography .  Incensed at this obvious miscarriage of justice , Arthur steps into the shoes of his creation , Sherlock Holmes and clears George ‘ s name and even gives the name of the man who could be a better candidate as a suspect for livestock maiming and also writing the vicious , sometimes even blasphemous letters  . . .

My thoughts on the book :

Julian Barnes does a fantastic job of delving into the psyche of his central characters , considering the fact that both of them were REAL men . . . Another reason why this might be almost a feat is that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is one of the most famous men in his times – while it might easier to research about this man , the same can ‘ t be said of portraying this man ‘ s psyche convincingly . The author needs to bring the REAL Sir Arthur on the paper and not some man who looked like Sir Arthur and sounded too much like his famous detective which would have been the case with any less competent author . It would have been only too tempting and an easy work to endow the creator of a fictional character with some of the characteristics of his creation itself  because , readers are only too used to equating the creator itself as the primary inspiration for the character .

When it comes to George Edalji , I suspect that the author might as well have been on his own , considering that all that came from this case was infamy . They don ‘ t report the character profiles  of  the  defendants in a case , you know  . . . Post Sir Arthur clearing George ‘ s name , after making a lot of noise , the young solicitor was happy to return to his practice and was not interested in grabbing the opportunities like addressing meetings , writing to the newspapers or give interviews which his new found fame afforded . . .

The detailed research is evident from the writing which subtly hints at the aspects of Doyle ‘ s life which do not concern the primary narrative threads like Doyle working on the Edalji case or his ‘ love story ‘ with his to – be – second – wife . I  feel that the implication is that the second Lady Conan Doyle was somewhat pretentious and very keen to ingratiate herself with the family members closest to her would – be husband  prior to their marriage  . My guess was proved correct when I read several articles how she was the fairy-tale stepmother who would not have Sir Arthur allow even the most simple requests from his daughter Mary Conan Doyle ( from his first marriage . . ) . Perhaps , his fight for justice for several others like George , might help the public impression of  a champion of justice but it does little to assuage the feeling that his conduct towards the children of his first marriage was not very honorable .

While several others in Sir Arthur ‘ s closest circle could discern that Miss Leckie was not the angel as Sir Arthur made her out to be after some time , the man ‘ in love ‘  could not discern even the slightest hint of it , even after eight years of clandestine courtship . This extract is about the feelings of Alfred H. Wood  – a friend , private secretary and business manager  to Sir Arthur . . .

He thought it might take him a while to adjust himself to Miss Leckie – though he doubted she would still be using her maiden name by the end of the next twelvemonth . He would serve the second Lady Conan Doyle as assiduously as he had served the first one ; though with less immediate wholeheartedness . He was not sure how much he liked Jean Leckie . This was , he knew quite unimportant . You did not , as a schoolmaster , have to like the headmaster ‘s wife . And he would never be required to give his opinion . But over the eight or nine years she had been coming to Undershaw , he had often caught himself wondering if there was not something a little false about her . At a certain moment  she had become aware of his importance in the daily running of Sir Arthur ‘ s life ; whereupon she had made a point a point of being agreeable to him . More than agreeable . A hand had been placed upon his arm , and she had even in imitation of Sir Arthur , called him Woodie . He thought this  intimacy she had failed to earn . Even Mrs Doyle – as he always thought of her – would not call him that .

[ . . . ] it seemed to Wood that sports played you a lot straighter than most women .

Talking about failing to spot the obvious ( atleast a man in love might be excused ) , one thing which intrigued and somewhat impressed me about George Edalji is the fact he did not play the racial – prejudice card . He could have very well done so if he had wished it . There were , in fact ,  a few who were biased against the Edalji family ( unsurprisingly ) , which Sir Doyle and the others fighting for George could discern easily but George himself continuously denied it . In this day and age when people are quick to take offense and quite often , interpret any random incident as having ” hurt their sentiments greatly ” ( I don ‘ t want to deflect into politics and the new norm of what can be or cannot be deemed as offensive . . .  ) , George Edalji is and will be a rarity I guess .

Here is George ‘ s  argument on why racial bias was not a factor in his case  :

” I was brought up as an English man . I went to school , I studied the law, I did my articles , I became a solicitor . Did anyone try to hold me back from this progress ? On the contrary . My schoolmasters encouraged me , my partners at Sangster , Vickery & Speight took notice of me , my father ‘ s congregation uttered words of praise when I qualified . No clients refused my advice at Newhall Street on the grounds of my origin . “

[ . . . ] There have been as I said , occasional slights . There were teasings and jokes . I am not so naive as to be unaware that some people look at me differently . I am a lawyer , Sir Arthur . What evidence do I have that anyone has acted against me because of race prejudice ? Sergeant Upton used to try and frighten me , but no doubt he frightened other boys as well .  ” 

Sir Doyle ‘ s affair raised an interesting question for me to ponder about – Why is that a man needs a dutiful and obedient wife who shadows him during the early years when he is working towards realizing his dreams and climbing the social ladder and when he finally achieved everything he had dreamed for , he starts to look for ‘ intelligence ‘ in his partner and wants her to walk along his side ( when the wife was always walking a step behind him in all these years of their marriage . . . ) There have been umpteen fictional affairs where a successful man falls for another much younger woman  because the lady can hold a conversation ‘ intellectually ‘. Duh!!

I specially loved the narrative style of showing  how the formative years and the lives of both the men had been in stark contrast by switching the chapters between the two men – Arthur grows up with the ambition of providing adequately for this family when he is grown – up having been a witness to the family ‘ s genteel poverty from an early age . George seemingly does not have any high ambitions but is happy to do the job he loves .  Arthur , from an early age , is groomed to be the ” man of the house ” ; George , on the other hand  does not have the responsibility to look out for his family ‘s finances . If there is any expectation from George , it is to have a decent career ; Arthur  is not happy in the marriage when his wife becomes terminally ill and begins an affair with a much younger woman . George ” aspires to that situation ” in his 30 s but comfortably settles down as a bachelor because ” he has seen too much in his practice ” . . .

Final thoughts :

This was one of the best reads of the year for me and is highly recommended from me . There were a few characters like Horace Edalji about whom I wanted to know how they turned out in detail but I understand that this book is about When Arthur Met George ( or should it be the other way round ? ) . I might pick up more of Julian Barnes ‘ work . . Also , the questions which the book raised , the introduction to this milestone case and the wonderful writing easily make this book stand out from all the other reads this year .

Here is one of my favourite passages from the book  which I MUST quote:

” He [ George ] would have sent them [ his parents ] on a dismal journey of self questioning . Today , we know George and we know him innocent . But perhaps in three months : we think we know George and we believe him innocent . And then in a year : we realize we did not know George , yet we still think him innocent . Who could blame anyone for this declension ? “

Rating : 4 / 5

If you have already read the book , let me know in the comments section about your thoughts on the book  . . . Until the next review then . .

Articles you might want to have a look at –

Adultery, my dear Watson: Writer betrayed his dying wife with younger lover

Revealed: the cruelty of Conan Doyle to his eldest daughter

Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

Review : Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

Mansfield Park

Plot synopsis from Goodreads :

Adopted into the household of her uncle – by – marriage , Sir Thomas Bertram , Fanny Price grows up a meek outsider among her cousins in the unaccustomed elegance of Mansfield Park . Soon after Sir Thomas absents himself on estate business in Antigua (the family’s investment in slavery and sugar is considered in the Introduction in a new , post-colonial light ) , Mary Crawford and her brother Henry arrive at Mansfield , bringing with them London glamour, and the seductive taste for flirtation and theatre that precipitates a crisis .

My thoughts on the book :

While several reviewers have too often moaned about Fanny Price ‘ s  ‘ inferiority ‘  to the other Austen heroines , I think that they simply do not consider the fact that Fanny ‘ s social standing is very different from the rest . The chief complaint which everybody seems to have is this Fanny is too timid . Do these readers who complain that Fanny is  ‘ a creepmouse ‘ expect her to have Elizabeth Bennet’s vivacity or Emma Woodhouse’s self assuredness while she is residing under her uncle ‘ s roof because her parents cannot afford to raise her ? A poor relation is only above the servants of the great house and has nothing to give herself airs about if you need some enlightening about how the society operated in Jane Austen ‘ s time . Sometimes , it is also upto  the readers to get the expectations right . . .

But these not – so – favorable  reviews actually helped me to get started with the book without much expections about the heroine and helped me to finish it without much regret . This should be the prime takeaway from this review – Have no great expectations and you will get through the book comfortably . Otherwise , you are definitely going to be disappointed . . .

One scathing observation  from a critic quoted by Claire Tomalin in her Austen biography  ( review here ) says that he found Fanny repellent : cold , self – righteous , rigid with prejudice , ‘ the most terrible incarnation we have of a the female prig – pharisee ‘ .

For me , while Fanny is rightly characterized as the creepmouse who is only too happy to sit sit unobserved and  observe the drama around her , the fact that her internal monologues almost always run along  the lines of ‘ Is this right  ? Is this wrong ? ‘ seemed a little absurd and was really exasperating . Considering the characters of her companions at Mansfield Park ( with the exception of Edmund ) , it seems very odd that she should be obsessed with the rights & wrongs like this . I also felt that it was a bit uncharacteristic for Fanny to wax eloquent at times when time and again the reader is reminded  that her education was not on par with the daughters of the house . . . I was able to overlook  her out – of – character , almost – too – poetic raptures  but even I had enough of Fanny ‘ s constant moralizing or her judgemental opinions ( regarding Mary Crawford particularly )  that I fully agree with the critic on every point except for finding her repulsive .  Any reader would recognize the underlying jealousy ( which Fanny stubbornly refuses to acknowledge even to herself  ) in the case of Mary Crawford – Fanny tends to play  up even the slightest hint of a vice in Mary Crawford to Edmund particularly , while she comfortably remains mum on the subject of her cousins ‘ scandalous elopements . . .

Atleast for me , Fanny ‘ s inferiority is in the fact that she does not get or never got  or probably would not get much love from the readers like the other Jane Austen heroines . We are not able to root for her like we did for every other Austen heroine – in fact despite all of Mary Crawford ‘ s ‘ deviousness ‘ as Fanny & Edmund would say , I wanted her to get married to the man whom she loved . But coming to think of it now , it ‘ s a match made in heaven between the two cousins . . .

That ‘ s enough of a rant about Fanny Price I guess . Now , lets talk about her love story .

I am not the first ( or going to be the last  ) reader who has this complaint – Fanny ‘ s love for Edmund is always hinted but the same Edmund who exclaimed ‘ My only sister ‘ on seeing Fanny  ( shortly after Mariah ‘ s elopement ) should fall in love with her some three or so chapters later is very much unlike Jane Austen who gave us Pride & Prejudice , Persuasion , Sense & Sensibility . If Austen had hinted at a budding romance halfway through the novel , I could have easily made peace with this romantic pair . The only problem with this lead pair is that nowhere in the book a keen reader would discern anything romantic in the interactions between the two until the big reveal . It seems that Jane Austen desperately wanted a happy ending for her book . With all other young people married or banished from Mansfield Park , she had no other people to pair up except for these two . .

Another sore point about Mansfield Park  was the writing . There were too many overly long sentences that wrapping my head around those was a trial . It was becoming quite tedious reading about Edmund and Fanny discussing the Crawfords & their merits / vices at length . . . Austen heroines who were more insightful than Fanny ( like Anne Elliot ) did not bore the readers with discussions about the characters of their neighbours . I enjoyed the chapters on Sotherton excursion , Fanny visiting her family and any other family drama very much after plodding through yet another discussion between Fanny & Edmund or even worse , Fanny ‘ s thoughts . .

* Just an idea *

Another thing which struck me after reading about Lady Bertram & Mrs . Price is that Jane Austen prefers having only the silly or sometimes indifferent parent(s) or sometimes guardians ( like Lady Bertram as in Fanny ‘ s case ) around her heroine – If you think about Mrs . & Mr . Bennet , Sir Elliot , Mr . Woodhouse , Mrs . & Mr. Price , you might also begin to see the pattern . If Austen chooses to have both the parents instead of only one ( as in Persuasion & Emma ) , then it means that both have varying levels of idiocy or eccentricity . I wonder why Austen chose to characterize the heroine ‘ s parents as people who could use some of their offspring ‘ s intelligence . . .

Final thoughts

On the whole , Mansfield Park is not going to be one of my Austen favorites . I still  have Northanger Abbey and  Sense & Sensibility  to read and having seen much positive response to  S & S , only  Northanger Abbey will decide the final rankings for Austen novels . I am confident that  in my rankings , no other Austen novel is going to beat Persuasion for the top spot . . .

Rating : 2 . 75 / 5

If you have already read the book , let me know in the comments section about your thoughts on the book  . . . Until the next review then . . .

P . S : I think that the current situation is the best time to tackle some classics . I don ‘ t think I would have had enough patience with Mansfield Park if I had read it during ” old  normal times ” . Here are  my discussion posts on Wuthering HeightsPart-1 , Part-2 if you want to check it out . . .

 

 

Audiobook review : The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle

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Author : Stuart Turton

Publication Date : 2018

Publisher(s) : Sourcebooks Landmark

Narrator : Jot Davies

Literary Awards :

Costa Book Award for First Novel (2018),

 Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Mystery & Thriller and for Debut Author (2018),

Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Nominee for Longlist (2019)

 Books Are My Bag Readers’ Awards for Best Novel (2018)

Plot summary :

The house party is meant to be a celebration but it ends in tragedy . As fireworks explode overhead , Evelyn Hardcastle , the young and beautiful daughter of the house , pulls the trigger of the pistol positioned at her stomach .  Aiden , one of the guests at Blackheath is tasked to find the murderer of Evelyn Hardcastle because somebody believes that there is more to the death of Evelyn Hardcastle than the suicide that the guests witnessed . . .

But Evelyn will not die just once . Until Aiden can solve her murder, the day will repeat itself , over and over again . Every time ending with the fateful pistol shot .

The only way to break this cycle is to identify the murderer . But , on cycling to the beginning of the day , Aiden wakes up in the body of one of the house guests – and every time it ‘ s a  different guest .

Aiden has a deadline , deadly enemies and too many dark secrets to uncover to unmask Evelyn ‘ s killer to escape Blackheath . . .

My thoughts on the book :

We have time and again seen our suspense fiction writers ( even  more often the debut authors ) experiment with the narrative  techniques – from the ( now done – to – death ) unreliable narrators to the reverse narrative and everything in between . . . In this scene , TSDOEH is still a bold attempt and Turton has pulled it off  marvellously . It is not far – fetched to compare the crime fiction author to a jigsaw puzzle designer who needs to cut every piece  to precision so that it fits with the next piece in sequence perfectly . While authors have sometimes had slip – ups with some of the frequently incorporated techniques only , to pull off a very convincing thriller with a previously unattempted time – loop element is nothing short of a feat . . .

The first thing that I loved about this book was that it has the power to keep the reader hooked . Let me explain –  I had always been a little wary of audiobooks . I am a multitasker and getting me to sit down with one task at a time is not that easy ( the exception being ONLY  books . . . ) . With the ” convenience ” of ” reading – on -the – move ” , I was not sure if I would be invested in the story as I would be in a physical book . I had tried it out earlier with some of P G Wodehouse ‘ s novels and it didn ‘ t work out . I am not sure if it was the story or the narration that lost my interest . . . I turned to Audible only under dire circumstances when  I ” had nothing to read ” in my shelves . . .  It might sound cliched but the story and the narration had me hooked right from the first chapter . .

A special mention should go to the narrator of the audiobook  Jot Davies . Without the glowing reviews of his performance , I doubt if people can be easily persuaded to pick up the book from the collection there . It lived up to all the expections set by these reviews .

While several authors fail to make every character memorable when there a bunch of them making their entrances and exits at different times ( or sometimes attach their profession like the doctor or the solicitor as a primary identifier with some by – the – template characteristics thrown in for some extra depth ) , Turton does not seem to have stumbled on this aspect which sometimes seems to have tripped up even the best of the crime fiction writers . . .  I guess this needs some elaboration :

The reader and Aiden is more or less on the same boat – Aiden wakes up every time in the body of a different guest and that ‘ s when the reader also gets a proper introduction to the character who would have been yet – another – guest ‘ s – name until now . A good two or three chapters is all the space that a character gets  ( with all the drama in the house too !! ) to make an impression on the reader .  Whether Aiden is slow to pick up any hints from his earlier avatars or not ,  an observant reader will surely able to connect the dots between the last loop and the current loop . But I should warn you not to underestimate Turton  –  that ‘ s as far as you can get . Just when you think you have an idea , Turton brings up HIS ideas and they would leave you dumb – founded . You would have never had the slightest inkling of the trajectory the plot would trace . . .

The author ‘ s Goodreads bio states that ” Stuart is not to be trusted. In the nicest possible way ” . It would have been better if they put it out as the warning for the readers also . . .  Just when the reader thinks that the mystery of Evelyn ‘ s death has been solved and he / she can get back to the real world , Stuart decides to pull yet another rabbit from his hat .  The final reveal was simply brilliant . . .

I am looking  forward to getting my hands on his next release ( expected in October 2020 ) . . . Hopefully , we are back to our ” old normal ” by then . . .

Rating : 5 / 5

If you have already read the book , you can say in the comments section about your thoughts on the book  . . . Until the next review then . . .

P . S : Maybe , now I will finally pick up a classic from my shelf as I mentioned in my previous post . . .