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Julian Barnes
Arthur & George
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2006

Borzoi / Alfred A. Knopf / Random House
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 0-307-26310-X
388 Pages; $24.95
Publication Date: 01-10-2006
Date Reviewed: 02-24-06

Index: General Fiction  Mystery  Non-Fiction

Even if you do know who Arthur and George are before you begin reading Julian Barnes' rich, rewarding new novel, you really don’t know who they are. Not yet, at least, not in terms of the novel. Nor can you be prepared for who they will become to you as you read, and the novel reveals them. Barnes builds them from the ground up, page by page, scene by scene. These two men, leaving one century for the next, leaving one life behind to find the next, are more than mere emblems, more than mere fiction and more than mere facts. Just as a novel is more than words, Arthur and George are more than characters. In 'Arthur & George', Barnes brings them and their stories to life without limits.

'Arthur & George' begins with a series of lovely, breathtaking vignettes, shuttling back and forth between the characters with a musical rhythm. Barnes envelopes the reader in each character, slowly building each man out of the pieces of his life. The first section of the novel is a masterpiece of addictive writing. Each chapter is short, swiftly read and the pieces slot together with symphonic precision. We're hooked by each story. George is the son of a poor rural pastor, nearsighted and shy. Arthur is the son of a strong-willed mother and an alcoholic artist father, a boy who moves half a dozen times in his first ten years of life. Arthur knows he must succeed in order to support his mother; George finds that he can succeed, to support himself. But even in his youth, George finds himself the object of pranks that leave him a target for the law. These pranks will eventually draw the two men together in circumstances neither would ever have imagined possible.

Barnes writes his novel in a gorgeous prose that is evocative but never mannered. He suggests the Edwardian times in which the novel is set without resorting to Edwardian prose. The result is an atmospheric and powerful work of fiction that immerses the reader in the times, in the places and the people without ever drawing attention to itself. He achieves the kind of limpid transparency that is so coveted in modern fiction without the affectation that sometimes afflicts the implementation of such a style. 'Arthur & George' is a consistent pleasure to read, with many sections that readers might be tempted to read aloud, would they but feel they could spare the time.

Time, alas, will seem short when reading this book. Like any treasured vacation, the hours spent with 'Arthur & George' are both utterly beguiling and heart-piercingly limited. Barnes' threads a mystery through the lives of these two men that compels readers to keep reading, to keep the experience going without interruption. His time as a mystery genre fiction writer was apparently amazingly well spent. He learned the rules so thoroughly that he's able to break them effortlessly, shockingly, and enjoyably. But readers will never feel as if this is a piece of genre fiction. Along with the mystery of who is persecuting George, why and what will happen to him as a result, Barnes threads any number of stories both major and minor that will enthrall readers. There are two wonderfully wrought romances, themes of literary history and a pertinent look at racism. By blending fact and fiction, he's able to address our own inclination to blend the two, our ability to confuse and conjoin them. Family duty, sexual moirés, sibling conflicts, the perennial challenge of bullying at school; fame, infamy, life and the afterlife; 'Arthur & George' offers readers everything that surrounds them in carefully chosen, compelling words that make it all seem more sensible than it ever seems when you look up from the pages.

More than anything, 'Arthur & George' offers those who love reading the fullest possible enjoyable reading experience. Barnes' story is a page-turner and a barn-burner. The real events behind the novel have implications that are important to this very day, to this very moment. Nations were changed, laws were enacted and lives were altered -- your life was altered -- by the real story this novel re-creates in fiction. But even if the whole story were invented, it's a powerful and well-told story. Barnes never gets in his own way. He never gets too clever, too complex, or too simplistic. He offers scenes of pure reading pleasure, such as an interrogation at the heart of the novel that is a gripping bit of mystery writing, an exposition of the concrete differences between fact and fiction and a bravura fight scene of purely civilized brutality. But there are also scenes of surpassing sweetness, honorable friendship and thuggish, ugly behavior. He even brings his own direct voice into the story in a manner that is powerful and affecting, down to the final word. Life, all of it, is here on the written page.

'Arthur & George' has a wide appeal and will be enjoyed by just about any reader lucky enough to open the novel. Those who like period fiction, mystery fiction, literary fiction, even romance fiction, will all find it thoroughly satisfying. Barnes manages the unique feat of writing a book that will appeal to many yet panders to none. No matter how fast you want to read this novel, slow down. Take your time. You can only read it the first time once. Yes, I've carefully managed to do what Barnes had to fight for from his publishers, that they not give away who precisely 'Arthur & George' were on the dust jacket. Yet given all the publicity this book has received -- not in the least from me -- there is a good chance that you think you know who they are. But their identity is a mystery, a primal mystery that you can solve only by reading the novel. Stop here. Start there. Life never ends.

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