A lot is happening in The Blasphemer by Nigel Farndale, probably too much for my taste – a few less plot lines and a little more depth would have made for a better book. Nonetheless, this is an interesting novel with an ambitious approach which makes for a good holiday read. There are two main story lines which are interwoven. The dominant story focuses on academic Zoologist Daniel Kennedy, a prominent atheist with a television series and a developing public profile who is about to undergo a crisis in almost every area of his life. As the novel starts it seems that everything is going his way – he is on the verge of promotion to a Professorship, his television series is becoming increasingly popular and he is planning to propose to his long term partner after taking her on a surprise holiday to the Galapagos islands. However, everything in his life is about to change – a plane will crash, relationship with Nancy will crumble and his academic nemesis (Wetherby) will scheme to bring about his downfall.
The second narrative in The Blasphemer harks back to the first world war and focuses on the story of Daniel Kennedy’s great-grandfather and the events which befell him during and after Passchendaele. Inevitably the stories are linked and the book moves gradually to the climax of both.
“One or two fewer plots would have made for a stronger book.”
One of the chief themes in The Blasphemer is the clash between atheism and religious belief. Daniel’s militant and bullish atheism is challenged by the possibility that he has seen an angel. I found it difficult to engage with this argument – Daniel’s atheism seems superficial, and the chief challenge to it implausible. It is not helped by the fact that most of the figures representing religious belief (including Wetherby) are unprincipled and in some cases downright evil – almost cartoonish. Real life is not so simple. This would have been a sufficient theme to carry a whole novel, but thrown into the mix are the nature of bravery and cowardice, Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism, paedophilia, heterosexual and homosexual love and academic politics. Overall, I felt that this was too much. One or two fewer plots would have made for a stronger book.
Nonetheless, The Blasphemer is a worthwhile read. The plot is always interesting and most of the characters are likeable and convincing. Some of the dialogue seemed a little clunky – the intellectual discussions are superficial and unreal – and the underpinning suggestion that angelic figures recur and link all of the major religions seems artificial given the scientific background of much of the novel. However, some of the scenes are gripping and convincing – the plane crash and some of the first world war trench warfare – and parts of the book are moving. Overall, then, a mixed bag, but a writer to watch.
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