Barnes, Julian: Arthur And George

Introducing the book, the proposer said it had been a difficult read for him, and at one stage he had doubted whether he would finish it. One reason for the difficulty in getting to grips with the book had been the feeling of incredulity at the character of George, and the unbelievable injustice which had happened to him. Only when 2/3rds through did the structure of the book make sense and where it was going become clearer. He was struck by the strong similarities of the challenges facing Arthur and George – e.g. their outsider status, moral dilemmas and how their behaviour appeared to wider society. He had been impressed by Julian Barnes’ fluent style and in the end had much enjoyed the book.

During wider discussion, the consensus was that Julian Barnes had produced a very fine novel. He had a fluent, low key, easy writing style. The structure – while somewhat challenging – made sense in the end.

There was much discussion of how close to what had actually happened the book was. Some of those present were aware of, or had researched, the background and confirmed the general accuracy. One member, with Home Office experience, commented on the background of chief constables and judges in the early 20th century, the role of the Home Office in wrongful conviction cases, and Conan Doyle’s achievement in getting the Court of Appeal set up in England in 1908 following the cases of George and also Oscar Slater. There was some discussion of the effect on the reader of knowing the book was a broadly true story.

Other issues raised in discussion were the nature of the trial (the account of which some found disproportionate to the rest of the book) and the police role in “evidence” gathering. The racism of the police and wider local society was commented upon, in particular George’s somewhat naïve refusal to see racism as a factor in his treatment. Arthur was particularly non-racist for his time. A parallel was drawn between George’s view of how society viewed him and Arthur’s in the matter of his relations with Jean Leckie.