Monday, 8 December 2008

Review – Julian Barnes – “Arthur & George”

Publ: 2005
Pensby Library
ISBN: 9780099492733 (Vintage 2006 edition)
Genre: Historical novel; biographical novel; mystery;
Pages: 500
Recommended by a fellow blogger
Rating: ***** ****

I have decided to use a series of headings in relation to each book to assist in my reviewing process (with thanks to Bookfoolery and Babble for the idea).

What led you to pick up this book?
It was recommended on a book blog but regrettably I didn’t note whose.

Describe the plot without giving anything away.
The story of two Victorian / Edwardian men brought up in different parts of the country and with different backgrounds - one in shabby-genteel Edinburgh and the other in rural Staffordshire. Eventually their paths cross. It is best approached without knowing who the characters are until the realisation gradually dawns so I won’t spoil it by saying any more about the plot.

What did you think of the characters?
Brilliantly and I mean brilliantly portrayed. I had a read an autobiography of one of them and knew a fair bit about him – indeed, he has always been a hero of mine. This novel captured his character perfectly. The Financial Times described it as a ’master-class in character observation’.

What did you think about the style?
Some books are meant to be read quickly – simple escapism in which, so long as it flows, style is of no great importance. It entertains and that is all it needs to do. Works like this however do so much more than entertain. They treat us to a use of the English language which needs to be read slowly; not because it is hard to follow but because it needs to be enjoyed. And every word is relevant and used in its proper context; I suppose what I am trying to say is that there is no waffle. This is not a work where skipping a couple of pages wouldn’t matter – something of key importance could occur at any stage.

What did you like most about the book?
The skill of the author in developing the characters and in introducing a mystery which is the central plot and yet which never overwhelms the study of the personalities. A lot of underlying mysteries also gradually surface – how will the characters meet, how will certain situations be resolved... Just about every human frailty and strength can be found in these pages. The setting gives us a detailed and (so far as I am aware) accurate picture of the life and times at the turn of the twentieth century.

Was there anything you didn't like about the book?

Thoughts on the book jacket / cover.
Stylishly simple. I like the spine – in the same pattern – as well.

Would I recommend it?

Totally irrelevant side note:
It was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize 2005


‘George, how old are you?’
This is how conversations often begin with Father. They both of them already know the answer, but George still has to give it....
(I think that is a classic example of how Barnes sets a scene in a few words. We can all imagine the man about to admonish his son with indications of what can be expected of a child his age.)

He looks forward to Sunday school all week. The rough boys do not attend; they are running wild in the fields, trapping rabbits, telling lies, and generally going down the primrose path to everlasting damnation.

Father told him years ago that farm boys and farm-hands were the humble whom God loved and who would inherit the earth. Well, only some of them, he thinks, and not according to any rules of probate that he is familiar with.

...yes, indeed, they ought to keep women off the golf course. Not simply off the fairways and putting greens, but out of the heads of the players, otherwise chaos would ensue...

(That’s a quote for my friend John McHale)

‘Arthur, my dear,’ she interrupts. ‘There is something I wish to talk about.’
He looks surprised, and slightly alarmed. If he has always valued her directness, there is a residual suspicion within him that whenever a woman says something must be talked about, it is rarely something to a man’s comfort or advantage.

It seemed to her that if you paid an investigator to elaborate your family tree, you would always end up being connected to some great family. Genealogical detectives did not, on the whole, send in bills attached to confirmation that you were descended from swineherds on one side of the family and pedlars on the other.

He would have made a strange sight in Staffordshire, and even in Birmingham they might have put him down for an eccentric; but nobody would do so in London, which contained more than enough eccentrics already.

...’Stop it! Stop it!’ Mrs Roberts suddenly shouts, and with her arms outstretched seems to push back at the spirits crowding behind her...
If these are indeed the spirits of Englishmen and Englishwomen who have passed over into the next world, surely they would know how to form a proper queue.

JULIAN BARNES – born in 1946 in Leicester and lives in London. He is the author of eight novels, including Metroland, Flaubert's Parrot, A History of the World in 10 - Chapters, England, England and Love Etc., and a collection of short stories, Cross Channel. He has won the Somerset Maugham Award among other prizes.


  1. I read this a few years ago and have recommended and lent it to several people. It is without doubt one of the most absorbing books I've read for a long time. I'm glad you have done a review. I could not have done the book such justice.


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