“Arthur and George” (published in 2005) is an example of what could be called Julian Barnes’ “exotic” novels, as against his “suburban” ones.
His exotic novels, like “The Noise of Time” (about the famous Russian composer Shostakovich trying to survive as an artist in Soviet Russia) and “Flaubert’s Parrot” (an English doctor in France searching for a stuffed parrot supposedly once owned by Flaubert), seem more inspired and intense than the ones I would label “suburban”.
The “exotic-ness” in the three novels mentioned is derived from a foreign character (that is, a protagonist who is not Anglo-Saxon), and/or a setting somewhere abroad that is not England, and has some element of fame attached to it. For example, a famous author, a famous composer, a famous legal case.
By “suburban” I mean that novels like “Metroland”, “Before She Met Me”, and “The Sense of an Ending” feel weighed down by the tedium of suburbia experienced by the protagonists, a feeling that saturates the point of view of the narrator. Suburbia is something that you escape from, with a bit of luck, or at least manage to view from a distance, as if through the wrong end of a telescope.
And so “Arthur and George”, although on the face of it an historical novel set in nineteenth century rural England, is in fact a psychological study of a notorious criminal case in which George Edalji, an Anglo-Indian lawyer, is wrongfully imprisoned. George is assisted by Arthur to obtain justice in the face of racial prejudice and police corruption. The identity of Arthur is only revealed well into the book, and he turns out to be Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes novels.
The two characters stand in opposition to each other. George is a highly intelligent but eccentric and isolated man, a victim of racism. Arthur is rich and famous, with Sherlock Holmes one of the best known characters in English fiction.
Foreignness and fame both abound in this novel, and although it is set in England, it is quite “exotic” in the sense I have suggested.
The personalities of the two protagonists are finely etched, with irony and humour. And Julian Barnes allows both protagonists equal exposure, not relying on Arthur Conan Doyle’s fame to drive the narrative. In fact, Arthur is given a warts-and-all portrait in the novel, while George’s experience as a member of a racial minority who is raised in England, and regards himself as English, is tellingly depicted.
Overall, “Arthur and George” is an engrossing and disturbing account of racism causing severe injustice. The novel also manages to be witty and entertaining, despite the grim realities of the story. It was televised in 2015 in the UK, with Arsher Ali and Martin Clunes in the main roles.