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.
on 14 June 2010
Even though I finished this novel a few days ago, I'm still thinking about it. The ending is satisfyingly ambiguous, depending on whether you are an atheist or a theist. Even the central characters don't seem to know what to make of it. The possibility that there might be a religious dimension is so enigmatically drawn that neither Daniel nor Andrew seems to know how to respond to it, which makes their stories all the more convincing. I also liked the way The Blasphemer was not only multi-layered -- time shifts between 1917 and the present -- but also multi-themed. There are two main themes: what happens to an atheist who thinks he might have had a religious experience, and what happens to a loving relationship when one half fails to act selflessly to save the life of the other. Above all, I appreciated the way the author left the interpretations up to the reader: the longing for innocence, the recognition of human shortcoming, the shifting moods, from melancholy to euphoria and back. You do get a sense in both the past and the present narratives of the partially sighted leading the partially blind through a moral and spiritual maze, like blinded soldiers leading each other out of the trenches. One idea occurred to me, which was prompted by the name of the fictional London University college, Trinity. The trinity in the novel seems to be Philip as the father, Daniel as the son and Hamdi as the holy ghost. That would make Wetherby the devil. Perhaps that is reading too much into it, but not only did I find this an exhilarating read, zigzagging back and forth, but also a chilling and moving one, reducing me to tears in some of the First World War scenes. The odd thing is, I don't know whether it made me happy or sad, all I do know is that I found the journey extemely satisfying and I would like to go on it again.
on 17 January 2010
This is that rare thing, a psychologically complex, finely crafted
literary novel that is as page turning as a thriller. Other reviewers
have discussed the plot and the characters in depth so I won't do the
same, but I would add that what I liked about it was the way the
author managed to weave profound ideas into the plot without them
seeming intrusive. There are big themes here, such as religion versus
Darwinism, and the meaning of cowardice. But it is also warm and
moving, especially in the way it tackles the breakdown of a marriage.
I also liked the way the momentum built towards the end, with the two
narratives -- the present day and the First World War -- finally
merging. I really recommend it. =
Other reviewers have already discussed the plot so I won't repeat that: this is undoubtedly, as others have said, an intelligent novel which engages with big themes: most prominent are the issue of religious faith vs. scientific knowledge, and the interrogation of what it means to be a man. One of the problems, however, for me, was that the two themes remain separate rather than ever fusing and so the book felt unbalanced and a little episodic rather than becoming an organic whole.
For me this is overwhelmingly a book about masculine experience: about war, about the bonds between men whether father-son relationships, male friendships or male rivalry. When I say it asks questions about what it means to be a man I mean that quite literally: this seems a very gendered narrative that probes masculinity not humanity. So Daniel compares himself, for example, to other people who `act like a man' in a crisis; Nancy accuses him of not being `a man'; his father berates himself for not having taught him `how to be a man'; Daniel also watches a TV programme of a sperm swimming to fertilise an egg and equates it to himself swimming after the plane crash. The margins of masculinity are also questioned in the figures of Dan's gay best friend who has the physique of a macho rugby player; and the effemininity of his heroic grandfather who wears silk underwear and dresses up as a woman. In the text to show courage is, literally, `to be a man': and perhaps this is one of the reasons that Nancy's experience during the crisis is not explored.
This is all really interesting stuff (if not exactly original) but it sits rather oddly with the debate about religion vs. Darwinism and the scattering throughout the narrative of possible religious visions of guardian angels. And the Muslim terrorism plot just seems added in because any intelligent contemporary novel can't avoid it.
Overall I found this quite an uneven and sometimes erratic read: the beginning, as others have remarked, is stilted and awkward with very unnatural dialogue. The cramming together of all the plotlines is also somewhat clumsy and there are gaps and holes in the narrative as if chunks have been cut out in order to fit a word limit. Characters, too, are not always coherent: Wetherby doesn't sound like an academic born in 1960 and the tired cliché of professor exploiting the sexual naivete of students is overworked. The 8-year old daughter also sounds all wrong for a child, and the product placement very irritating (no-one answers a phone, only an iphone). The academic milieu is also laughably inaccurate. And I seriously doubted Daniel's intelligence when he applies Darwinian theory to the evolution of social and cultural institutions. The ending feels very hurried and left me feeling unsatisfied, perhaps because there's just too much going on and it all suddenly rushes to a close.
But despite all my caveats this is an interesting and intelligent read even if it is not a completely coherent one. I suspect it would have been better with another good edit with a ruthless red pen, and simplifying the narrative strands would have led to a more unified text. But still thought-provoking and definitely worth a read.
on 30 January 2012
The Blasphemer by Nigel Farndale was shortlisted for the 2010 Costa Book Award, and frankly, it rather beats me as to how that happened. It isn't that it is a BAD book, dreadful to read or anything like that; it's a book which if it were a person would suffer from multiple personality disorder. It doesn't seem to know what it is, or what it wants to be. There are about five storylines:
1) Daniel and Nancy go on an exotic holiday for their anniversary and events permanently change their relationship.
2) Andrew, a young soldier fights in WW1, whilst his grandson Philip tries to piece together his story
3) Wetherby, an embittered, pious, dried up academic seeks to destroy a colleagues career out of jealousy and spite
4) Hamdi, an innocent Muslim teacher is labelled as a 'clean-skin' and potential terrorist by the Security Services when he is accidentally caught up in a demonstration.
5) Martha, an overly mature 9 year old, begins behaving oddly and then goes missing.
The link between all these strands is Daniel: Philip is his father, Martha his daughter, Hamdi her teacher and Wetherby his colleague. But it just doesn't work. What frustrated me whilst reading this book is that each strand, taken alone, is a brilliant premise for a novel.
The first storyline could have been a brilliant examination of the effect of a being a disaster survivor upon a relationship, the second a great historical novel about love, cowardice and the folly of war. The third a creepy, atmospheric tale about a sinister saboteur who sets out to destroy an oblivious friend. The fourth a commentary about the treatment of Muslims in a post 9/11 and 7/7 world, and the last a look at the modern world in which parents live in a culture of fear with regard to child safety.
Instead, the novel is none and all of these things, an awful mish-mash of half ideas, concepts imagined and left hanging. It really feels as though Farndale started five separate novels, got writers block and in the end just bunged them all together. It's really odd, and feels like not just a wasted opportunity but five wasted opportunities. Particularly, I felt, in the character of Wetherby alone there was real potential for deep character development and a dark psychological thriller, in the vein of Ian McEwan's Enduring Love or Zoe Heller's Notes On A Scandal, but this does not occur.
In addition there is an examination of faith versus atheism underpinning the novel, but this again feels 'thrown in for good measure', underdeveloped and lacking in anything new to say. The end twist involving Hamdi does raise a small smile, but then the epilogue feels superfluous after this denouement.
One of the reasons I bought this novel was because of the amount of 5 star reviews it had on Amazon, which, I must say I'm a bit baffled by. One reviewer compared it to Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks.
There is NO comparison in my eyes between this book and the sublime Birdsong, or between Farndale and Faulks. I find myself slightly horrified by the suggestion. I feel like she should wash her mouth out to be honest, as should any of these 'many' making comparisons. Yes, I thought 'A Week In December' was dreadful, but that book is the exception to my experience with Faulks as a writer. Faulks, at least, takes one idea and develops it, whereas Farndale can't seem to decide what the hell he wants his book to be about. There are some ridiculous 'as if' coincidences at the end too, such as the conclusion of the Wetherby storyline and the Martha storyline.
A book of opportunities wasted, I'm going to give this 5/10 a point for every great novel it could so easily have been.
on 27 February 2010
`The Blasphemer' is the first book I have read by Nigel Farndale and it has been quite a reading journey with some stops and starts along the way. Essentially it is two alternating stories one is set in the present and is a tale of Daniel Kennedy and his wife Nancy who whilst holidaying in the Galapagos Islands endure a horrifying time when their plane ditches into the sea and the events after that as Daniel saves himself before remembering to save Nancy and all that follows from his actions. The other tale is of Daniel's great grandfather Andrew and starts in 1917 as he prepares to go over the top to fight for his country and his life.
Now reading the above synopsis back I am thinking how on earth could I have had a hard time with that? Both stories sound quite thrilling and gripping and indeed they were but despite the writing of the modern tale (the scenes of the plane crash are incredibly tense and terrifying and not for those of you who like me who don't like flying anyway) it read more like a good thrilling summer read as opposed to the other war torn harrowing and horrific storyline, which to me read like an award winning book and so together the juxtaposition just didn't gel and I was having a hard time skipping from one to the other but by the end it s worth the effort. I do think this happens in a lot of alternating writing though there is always one that you tend to prefer and for me it was 1917 with this book.
The second challenge for me was sadly Nancy and Daniel. I didn't really understand why they were married as they didn't seem to like each other before Daniel almost forgot to save her life. Yes ok they had been through a traumatic event and must have been in shock but you'd think they would celebrate surviving and they didn't they just moped and griped. Yet in the other storyline you had an amazing love story between Andrew and Madame Camier which makes your heart bleed. I think, well I hope, that Farndale was trying to contrast the couples aswell as Daniel and Andrew and the fault probably lies with me for not trying hard enough to involve myself in the modern storyline.
The final challenge for me (and I am saying challenge and not hurdle as challenges can be positive) was how much Farndale was putting into the book for example Daniel had only been in the UK a few weeks after the plan crash when he witnesses a terrorist bomb when a van five cars ahead of him blows up. We also have another character Daniel works with who is a professor that sleeps with and beats his students which then opens up huge questions about education and then a can of worms about religion (I can't explain it would take a while) and though I am good at suspending belief with a book I felt I was stretched at points and I am not talking about the angel bits... yes there are angel bits. I also started to notice I was becoming a cynical reader when I was thinking `oh and now we have a gay male character that's another subject and box ticked' when actually the relationship between Daniel and his best friend is a very nice insight into men who care for each other in a purely platonic way. When I got to cynical I stopped reading again but the tale of Andrew running along side it kept drawing me back. An interesting read for me in many ways.
on 23 August 2010
Daniel Kennedy, militant atheist and high-profile zoologist, has grown up in the shadow of three generations of military glory and felt he's never measured up. Then, out of the blue, he finds himself in a survival situation and hailed as a hero for saving four people's lives. But, privately, there are two aspects of his ordeal that he is unable to come to terms with. First, that survival instinct led him to risk his partner's life to save himself, and she can't forget that. Second, that he had what he can only describe as a mystical experience, defying all his attempts to rationalise it.
Meanwhile, Daniel's father has found the key to unravelling a family secret that has always haunted him. His grandfather died on the first day of Passchendaele, or so he's always believed. Now a bundle of letters have come to light, challenging that assumption.
Courage takes many forms. If you don't believe you're about to die, is it courage at all? Are certain people genetically programmed to survive at the expense of others? As Farndale skilfully weaves together two narratives separated by almost a century, he addresses these questions and many more. To his credit, he doesn't draw any hard-and-fast conclusions. A subplot challenging the assumptions made in modern policing about Islam and terrorism is balanced by restrained but powerful evocations of military valour in the 20th century, culminating in a British doctor's heroism in the Gulf War. Some of the analogies made are a little strained and the inclusion of an unlikely coincidence involving a lost Mahler score doesn't quite work. But this novel is morally courageous without taking sides - it makes you think hard and its philosophical questions are grounded in beautifully rendered detail.
Whether he is describing how it feels to know you're going over the top to your death in an hour or two, the minutes leading up to an air crash, cleaning your teeth with your arm in a sling or the surreal process of digging up bones and shrapnel in contemporary Ypres, Farndale's writing has the stamp of authenticity, the controlled power to move the reader and the intelligence to ask important questions. It also includes one of the best descriptions of a strained father/son relationship based, nevertheless, on genuine love and respect, that you will read anywhere.
on 29 November 2011
The Blasphemer is one of those novels which starts off great but unfortunately it started to fall apart for me and completely unravelled by the end.
The main character Daniel Kennedy is a scientist and quite the aggressive atheist (think Richard Dawkins aggressive) David takes his partner and the mother of his child on a trip to the Galapagos Islands and while there, their small sea plane crashes into the sea. It is while swimming to shore in order to save his fellow passengers that David sees a vision. Was this vision a mere symptom of his fatigue and stress or a guardian angel?
While that plot line is interesting enough, running parallel to this is the story of Daniel's great-grand father and his experiences in World War I as he prepares to go over the top on the first day of the fighting at Passchendaele.
The novel starts promisingly enough and there are some really good ideas. The World War I scenes are quite good (but not a patch on Birdsong) and I liked the whole concept of the scientist atheist coming across something he is unable to explain. There are so many good ideas and different plot threads but unfortunately they did not always gel together well enough with some plot elements not working sufficiently well.
There is a bizarre Muslim terrorist sub-plot which has no reason at all to be in the novel and is never concluded. The only Muslim character in the book is a teacher who is being trailed by the police for no reason at all and, by the polices own admission, the guy has done nothing wrong. I just found this really unnecessary and out of place.
Then there is Daniel's work colleague Weatherby; a devout Christian with an evil streak taken to almost comical proportions (think sleazy professor who likes to sleep with his students, which has been done a million times before) and seems intent on ruining Daniels life again for no reason whatsoever.
Religion and belief is a big theme in the novel and Daniel has quite a few religious debates throughout the novel with both Wetherby (who is a professor) and his best friend (who is a doctor.) But despite these three grown men having highly professional intelligent careers, the `debates' never go beyond `well you've never seen Greenland so how do you KNOW that exists'. Honestly! That's the kind of religious debate a child would have - with another child.
Finally I quite like happy endings I really do. But not when the author has to make the plot more and more convoluted within the last 40 pages in order to get there.
Its a shame really
I enjoyed this.
I hadn't heard of the author before and didn't really know what to expect when I started reading it. What struck me, initially, was that I found it hard to get into. The first 20 or so pages seemed awkward and the rendering of the characters just wasn't working for me. At one point I really didn't think I'd enjoy the book in its entirety.
But it got better as I got further in. It become pacey and almost breathless in places, especially by the final third when it had - to me at least - become a genuine page turner.
What's it about? Well, a number of themes came through - religion (especially the concept of 'guardian angels') and relationships being dominant.
The principle characters were well drawn (by the end). That said, I found the novel very much set 'in the now' and I could see it dating in years to come. Lots of references to contemporary ephemera - the ubiquitous iPod, for example.
All in all a recommended read. Had the first third been as good as the final third I'd give it 5* but due to what I experienced as a weak start I'll give it 4*.
As several reviewers have noted, this is a complex novel, which handles complex ideas, jumping between generations, locations and points of view in its journey.
One journey, set in the trenches, is extremely visceral, speaking to the guts as well as the heart. It contains sections of extremely graphic depiction of that war, and portrayals of random violence which absolutely engaged with this reader's viscera - sweating palms, feelings of extreme nausea, heart pounding. The depiction of violence is real and not in any way gratuitous - it serves to suggest that the real act of gratuitous violence is not in authorial descriptions, but in the act of war itself, and what society demands of its men in particular, when countries engage in conflict.
The second journey continues an examination of what society as a whole and women in particular may demand of their menfolk, and masculine identity. It also engages in a more cerebral, less visceral debate about the nature of the mind, and explores Darwinian theory, faith and unbelief
An intelligent novel, demanding the reader thinks through debates. However, the examination of Darwinian ideas and whether experience occurs in the brain or the mind (and are these separate) does present the writer with the usual knotty problem that surfaces here : how on earth does one convey complex arguments and factual information without it all seeming like paragraphs lifted from scientific papers or other specialist writing.
Inexplicably, Farndale's not particularly successful method is to have two characters, one a specialist in nematodes and the other, a neurologist, have a conversation about consciousness, experience and the brain, with the specialist in that area peculiarly forgetting what the various brain structures are called, so that Nematode Man provides Neuro Man with the answers.
Many reviewers have compared this book to Birdsong; in fact, there are more similarities with much else of Faulks' oeuvre - the novel of ideas. In my opinion, Faulks' is a master at educating the reader in complex ideas without the reader being so conscious of the devices used to convey heavy factual info, as Farndale struggles with in aspects of this book
The ending, 'the wrap' didn't quite satisfy - a little too tidy and also drawn out, for my liking, but i was otherwise pretty well engaged by this novel, most of the way through, and really appreciated the way I was DIFFERENTLY engaged, by the two journeys, and how they connected
Overall, an excellent and provocative book which continued to make me think even when I wasn't physically reading it