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.
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*.
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 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
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 26 January 2014
There are some impressively intellectual critiques of this book so even if I could remember how to do one I wouldn't add to them.
You know when you say, "I'm going to bed early tonight because I've got a great book to read." ? This is one of those books. If you wake in the night you don't worry about feeling tired in the morning. You just remember the book and turn the light on.
This a dense, generous book that doesn't feel over-edited, so it feels fresh and has imperfections. Some reviewers point out that there are possibly too many story strands in there. I don't disagree - at the end I didn't feel that I'd got all the ends tied up in my mind - but for me there's no such thing as too many stories. I'm not looking for structural perfection; I'm not at university anymore evaluating balance and cohesion. I'm looking for good stories well told - stories I can lose myself in, where the author is invisible because he writes so well (and yes, Nigel Farndale does) and which keep moving along.
Alright, it's about what it means to be a man. I'm a woman but that didn't offend me. And yes, there's a lot going on so maybe he could have got two books out of it, and the end does race along a bit. But who cares? The First World War scenes are brilliantly drawn, the relationships are sensitively developed, the pace is relentless and the questions raised give you plenty to think about. I hope Nigel Farndale writes many more and that he never gets another 1 star review because a book had some pages missing.
This novel, Nigel Farndale's first, reads as though he has drafted several potential plots, and then put them all together. The central strand of the novel deals with Daniel Kennedy, a zoologist, university lecturer, devout atheist and Man of Science, who experiences what might be thought of as a miracle. Daniel and his partner Nancy set off from Ecuador to the Galapagos Islands, where Daniel, a fervent Darwinist, is planning that they will marry at the Charles Darwin Observatory. The plane they are travelling in crashes 14 miles off the islands. Daniel and Nancy are among nine of the thirteen passengers left alive, Daniel barely injured. Although his first action (climbing over his wife's body to escape and get air) is considered a terrible one by both him and Nancy, Daniel then behaves like a hero, freeing the other passengers and then volunteering to swim 14 miles to land to get help. The swim, predictably, nearly kills him, but just as he is beginning to lose hope of surviving, he is saved, first by a strange vision of a young man who points him in the direction of the shore, and then by a passing turtle, who bears his semi-conscious body to shore when his lifejacket snags on its shell. Daniel rescues Nancy and the other remaining survivors (not many by this point) and is acclaimed as a hero. But in fact his troubles are only beginning. Back in London, Nancy is haunted by memories of the crash and Daniel's actions afterwards, and this becomes the focus for all her suppressed irritations at Daniel from the past. Following the crash, Daniel experiences strange headaches, smells odd odours (including burning rubber), experiences strange bouts of sexual craving and finds himself subject to odd fits of behaviour (on one occasion he breaks down in uncontrollable giggles in a lecture, on a trip to Boston he finds himself stripping off to jump off a bridge into the river, etc). But this doesn't trouble him as much as his vision, which, as a devout atheist, he desperately wants to find a rational explanation for. Was it just the result of dehydration and exhaustion? Is there something wrong with him (epilepsy, even a brain tumour?). Or, as Hamdi, his daughter's mysterious music teacher suggests, might Daniel be wrong about God after all?
With this story, Farndale has already enough material for a full novel. However, 'The Blasphemer' has various other plotlines running concurrently. There is Daniel's struggle to come to terms with his relationship with his father, Philip, an army doctor and military hero. There is Daniel's precocious nine-year-old daughter's crush on Hamdi, who she decides will be her husband. There is a plot thread dealing with academic skulduggery in Daniel's place of work, where the Vice-Provost and music professor, who Daniel believes is his friend, is plotting his downfall. And there is the tragic wartime story of Daniel's great-grandfather Andrew, who escaped Passchendaele and fell passionately in love with a mysterious French woman. Oh, and there's also a thriller-style plot thread about a kindly man who turns out to be a psycho, a mystery about a missing music manuscript... in fact, a host of stories that all have to be dealt with, and needless to say, in the space of 500 pages are explored in a somewhat perfunctory way, and wrapped up rather too quickly on many occasions.
In choosing to discuss the role of religion in an increasingly secular society, Farndale has picked a fascinating topic. However, I never felt he really explored it in depth. He began by overweighting the argument massively in favour of Daniel (whose vision might be the result of several medical conditions, or simply exhaustion and trauma) and having Daniel deliver a large number of impassioned atheistic speeches. This made the sudden turnaround at the end, with another, long-ago miracle, and a strong hint that guardian angels do indeed turn up to protect us, a surprise, and somewhat unconvincing. I didn't feel that Farndale really gave the religious side of the argument quite enough of a chance intellectually, particularly by having the main Christian in the story such a vile character (and the portrait of Catholicism is stereotyped to the point of being offensive - very few priests would simply tell a man who confessed to beating up his girlfriend to say ten Hail Marys and see a counsellor, nor do Catholics generally assume that going to Confession means they can go back to sinning again immediately). Instead, the case for religion seemed to rely on the rather gauzier argument about 'seeing angels' and 'guardian spirits protecting us' - and I couldn't help wondering why the Kennedy family seemed to be singled out for protection above anyone else. Other strands of the plot tended towards the silly - Farndale clearly knows little about academic life, and the portrayal of the music don, always seducing students and scheming against fellow academics, was a ghastly caricature (unless you're Shakespeare or Wagner, motiveless malignancy is hard to portray); the 'thriller' element towards the end was introduced too suddenly to work; and I couldn't work out what relevance the plot to do with the Mahler manuscript had to the rest of the work - a shame, as Mahler could have fitted interestingly into the religious argument. Farndale did write movingly at times about Daniel's relationship with Philip, and some of the sections involving Andrew and his experiences during World War I were very gripping. But because Farndale had set up such a complicated plot for the modern-day narrative, he could only deal with Andrew fairly briefly, and large amounts of his story were unexplained - how an Englishman with little French managed to set up in a French village in 1918 as a plumber, for example, how he met Madame Camier and whether or not he actively decided to desert. Andrew's language also slipped wildly, from normal 'middle class' to a semblance of working class, as did his spelling in his letters! I also agree with Roman Clodia that this was a very 'masculine' book, with everything told from a very 'male' point of view, and all the 'good' male characters extremely masculine in their behaviour and attitudes. The women are quite thinly depicted: Adilah, Andrew's sweetheart (if she was from Southern France, wouldn't it be 'Adela' or 'Adila', rather than this rather North African spelling?) was a symbol of quiet gentleness and barely seemed to exist as a person in her own right other than as Andrew's lover, Nancy came across as rather petulant and self-involved, and Martha was nothing like any nine-year-old I've met, and seemed to be gearing up for the role of Lolita.
I did enjoy reading the novel up to a point - there are lots of interesting ideas, and Farndale does keep one guessing what will happen next. But on the whole, I found that the author was trying to do too much in too much of a hurry, and sacrificed detailed exploration of characters for a large number of often rather sensationalistic narrative threads. Three and a half stars.
on 21 February 2011
Some of the characters are written a little too large for my liking (on both sides of the science/religion schism), but it's a cracking tale nonetheless. Though to be honest, I have a nagging suspicion that those with some flickering of faith might get more out of it than a godless heathen like myself, but I'm glad I read it, all the same.
I nearly gave up on this book. The first few chapters are really quite tedious, featuring an apparently boring middle class couple with personal problems I couldn't care less about. I am so glad that I persevered, because after the initial chapters this transpired to be one of the most thought provoking works of fiction I have read recently.
The narrative flits between the present day and the tail end of World War One. The writing is very powerful. Indeed the description of a plane crash is so convincing that I would recommend you do not read it shortly before a flight.
The lead character in the present day is an atheist sceptic in the Richard Dawkins mould. He has an experience after the plane crash which may be a divine revelation or just a hallucination. This experience and all that flows from it gets the reader to think about the great theological questions of faith and truth.
Our hero's faith in Darwinism is also shaken by the fact that unexpected truths emerge about his genetic inheritance (linked to the earlier narrative) and the character of his ancestor.
The book also deftly examines the links between terror and religious faith and looks at the stereotypes the authorities and general populace have developed over the last few years.
In all a very well written book which is a gripping read, but which also gets the reader thinking about the great questions of our age.
Just a shame that they did not edit out the first fifty pages.