Once I had waded through the first fifty pages or so, I thought this an excellent book. It is thoughtful, insightful, gripping and generally very well written. I found the lengthy scene-setting at the beginning so tedious and apparently self-indulgent that I very nearly gave up but I am extremely glad I didn't. The rest is so good that I still rate it as a five-star book - a rare thing for me.
The publisher's blurb tells (slightly inaccurately) probably more of the plot than I wanted to know before starting the book, so I won't summarize it further, but it switches between the main protagonist in the present day and his great grandfather at Passchendaele in 1917 and 1918. This works extremely well: both stories are very involving and are very skilfully counterposed, with neat, subtle parallels and contrasts between the two. I thought the brief periods of extreme action in both stories quite brilliant. There have been a lot of fine evocations of the First World War trenches but Farndale's description of a man in the build-up to action and then going over the top felt quite new and had me absolutely riveted with a racing heart and sweaty palms. The crash which drives the present-day plot is the point at which the book really takes off and again is simply brilliantly described.
Thoughtful moments are equally well done. For example, Farndale says of one character waiting at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday, "...he had not known his father, who in turn had not known his father. Neither man had grown old as he, the son and grandson, had grown old. They had instead been frozen in youth, their likenesses recorded in a few granular photographs, their names carved on stones in foreign fields. They were strangers to one another, grandfather, father and son, yet once a year, on the same November morning they met for two minutes in the silence." I found that very touching, and was equally moved to emotion or thought in several other places.
The book deals with a complex interplay of ideas: among others the nature of cowardice and courage, the nature of powerful religious faith and militant scientific atheism and whether either can offer a complete world view alone, and what might really constitute guilt, forgiveness and redemption. Farndale manages this without being at all turgid or preachy, and encompasses it all in a story which I found page-turningly engrossing and exciting. The characters are believeable and well-drawn. (He catches beautifully the blokey relationship between two men who really care for each other, for example.) There are even a couple of really good jokes. The dénouements of the various strands are perhaps not all entirely plausible, but I really didn't mind that - it certainly didn't interfere with my interest and enjoyment.
I'm sorry this is rather a long review. I don't think I could do the book justice in a brief one. Please don't be deterred if, like me, you find the book's opening a struggle. You will be rewarded with a really gripping read which pays you the compliment of discussing complex ideas and emotions without patronising or offering glib solutions. I thought this an excellent book and I recommend it very warmly to anyone who likes an involving, intelligent, thoughtful and thought-provoking read.