Tuesday, 23 November 2010

The Blasphemer

Title: The Blasphemer

Author: Nigel Farndale

Number of pages: 425

Started: 17 November 2010

Finished: 23 November 2010

Opening words:

With a five-day beard and a crust of yellow mud woven into the fabric of his breeches, Peter Morris does not look like an officer. Instead of a peaked cap he wears a loose-knit trench hat. On his back is a sleeveless leather jerkin. His skin is grey with fatigue and his hooded eyes, as he raises he head and stares at the entrance of the dugout, are shot with blood.

Plot summary:

On its way to the Gal├ípagos Islands, a light aircraft ditches into the sea. As the water floods through the cabin, zoologist Daniel Kennedy faces an impossible choice — should he save himself, or Nancy, the woman he loves? In a parallel narrative, it is 1917 and Daniel’s great grandfather Andrew is preparing to go over the top at Passchendaele. He, too, will have his courage tested, and must live with the moral consequences of his actions. Back in London, the atheistic Daniel is wrestling with something his ‘cold philosophy’ cannot explain — something unearthly he thought he saw while swimming for help in the Pacific. But before he can make sense of it, the past must collapse into the present, and both he and Andrew must prove themselves capable of altruism, and deserving of forgiveness. The Blasphemer is a story about conditional love, cowardice and the possibility of redemption — and what happens to a man of science when forced to question his certainties. It is a novel of rare depth, empathy and ambition that sweeps from the trenches of the First World War to the terrorist-besieged streets of London today: a novel that will speak to the head as well as the heart of any reader.

What I thought:

This is the first of this year’s Costa shortlist that I have read. It was a very readable book, and in many ways it had an engaging plot. But there were some things about this book that did not sit well with me. It was a book that was made up of many interlinked stories that unfolded and the links between them became clearer as the book continued. But in some ways those plot developments seemed a touch contrived. It felt as though, at times, you were meant to see how history or characteristics repeat each other over the generations, but I wasn’t entirely sure that always worked.

I also wasn’t convinced that this book knew quite what it was about. The majority of the plot was set in the modern day, but at times is was difficult to tell if the book was about a family drama, a plane crash, a university novel, religion, philosophy, a reflection on modern attitudes to the past, or a supernatural story. Then add to that another major plot set in the First World War and all the different plot devices that went with that (and a plot twist towards then end that lacked so much credibility that I possibly outwardly groaned when the possibility of where that particularly aspect of the story was going was revealed) and you might then get the impression that I found it hard to identify what this book was trying to convey. Each of those plots, or a combination of a small number of them, would have sufficed, but the constant layering of new aspects to the novel made the book disjointed, even though it was a decent enough story.

As I say, it was very readable. But I think the author should have limited himself in how he developed the plot and that greater focus would have made the book more credible.

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