Life. How easily everyone, including himself, said the word. Life must go on, everyone routinely agreed. And yet how few asked what it was, and why it was, and if it was the only life or the mere amphitheatre to something quite different. Arthur was frequently baffled by the complacency with which people went on with . . . with what they insouciantly called their lives, as if both the word and the thing made perfect sense. [….] The demolition of antique faiths had been fundamental to human advancement; but now that those old buildings had been levelled, where was man to find shelter in this blasted landscape?
He has never been a lothario or seducer, and never known how to say those things which are necessary to arrive at the stage beyond the one where he currently stands – not knowing either what the further stage might be, since where he is at the moment appears, in its own way, to be final.
This damn temper of his is not getting any better. He puts it down to being half Irish. The Scottish half of him has the devil of a job keeping the upper hand.
Despite being a child of the Vicarage, despite a lifetime of filial attention to the pulpit of St. Mark’s, George has often felt that he does not understand the Bible. Not all of it, all of the time; indeed, not enough of it, enough of the time. There has always been some leap to be made, from fact to faith, from knowledge to understanding, of which he has proved incapable. This makes him feel a sham. The tenets of the Church of England have increasingly become a distant given. He does not sense them as close truths, or see them working from day to day, from moment to moment. Naturally, he does not tell his parents this.
He rarely feels the lack of what he does not have. The family takes no part in local society, but George cannot imagine what this might involve, let alone what the reason for their unwillingness, or failure, might be. He himself never goes to other boys’ houses, so cannot judge how things are conducted elsewhere. His life is sufficient unto itself. He has no money, but also no need of it, and even less when he learns that its love is the root of all evil. He has no toys, but does not miss them. He lacks the skill and eyesight for games; he has never even jumped a hopscotch grid, while a thrown ball makes him flinch. He is happy to play fraternally with Horace, more gently with Maud, and more gently still with the hens.
Arthur & George.
A book that has been sitting patiently on my TBR shelves for the last decade. I recall how much this Man Booker shortlisted nominee had appealed to me back then in 2005, and how I had really looked forward to reading this tale of how two very different lives that were worlds apart, being brought together by circumstances set off from a gross miscarriage of justice right at the start of the twentieth century. It is described as “a novel about low crime and high spirituality, guilt and innocence, identity, nationality and race; about what we think, what we believe, and what we can prove.”
Also, the Arthur in this story happens to be Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
I am only midway through this 450 pages of sheer literary brilliance. But it is enough to have me already quite decided that it’s a five star read.
And personally, I think it might be a case of a ‘gross miscarriage of justice’ too, that it had not been the Man Booker Prize winner for that year.