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Customer Review

on 29 November 2009
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
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.
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4.2 out of 5 stars