Book review: The Blasphemer by Nigel Farndale

A novel of ideas that reads like an all-action thriller is a rare thing.

By Pam Norfolk
Thursday, 13th January 2011, 6:00 am

The Blasphemer, Nigel Farndale’s sensational multi-layered and multi- faceted story of war, faith, science, bravery, music, sacrifice and love, is an enigma wrapped up in an enigma.

With shades of both Sebastian Faulks’ heart-wrenching Birdsong and Dan Brown’s frantic The Da Vinci Code, Farndale’s elegant and classy literary debut novel forces us to confront conflict in all its many forms while whisking us away on an exhilarating adventure.

From warring couples and dangerous rivalries to horror on the Western front in 1917 and terrorism on the streets of London, one family’s past and present collide in spectacular fashion.

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So too do entrenched beliefs...can science always account for ‘miracles’, can acts of evil be forgiven in the name of religion and can the past truly inform the present?

But it’s war, the cruellest and most brutal form of conflict, that acts as the catalyst for this thoughtful, beautifully descriptive and thoroughly engaging novel.

Daniel Kennedy is a zoology professor and militant atheist, his only gods being Charles Darwin and Richard Dawkins.

He has always felt out of place and time with his family history which includes three generations of war heroes.

His great grandfather died at Passchendaele, his grandfather won a posthumous VC for a suicidal attack on a German machine-gun position during the Second World War and his father won the Military Cross during the First Gulf War.

Daniel has never considered himself brave, for a start he has a terrible fear of flying. But is everyone capable of selflessness, given the right circumstances, or is there such a thing as a bravery gene?

When he and his partner Nancy, mother of his young daughter, are flying to the Galapagos Islands, his worst nightmare happens and the plane crashes into the sea.

In his panic to save himself in the upturned plane, Daniel roughly pushes Nancy to one side and swims to the surface.

He redeems himself by going back to rescue her but his reflex act of self-survival will have terrible repercussions on their relationship.

In another act of bravery, Daniel offers to swim to shore to get help but, disorientated and suffering from hypothermia, he is ready to give up until the vision of a man appears, beckoning him to safety.

Back at home, Daniel’s life goes into freefall as a rift grows between himself and Nancy, an evil colleague tries to wreck his career, he confronts the possibility that a blow to his head during the plane crash has damaged his brain, he gets caught up in a terrorist explosion and his daughter is abducted.

Is his continued survival due to angelic intervention or can it be explained by science?

Meanwhile, newly discovered letters written by his great grandfather on the Western Front hold the key to a family mystery and as we weave between the past and present, Daniel embarks on a voyage of self- discovery.

Farndale is a clever and humane writer – he frees his characters from the straitjacket of stereotype and allows his themes to develop unfettered by either personal prejudice or contemporary thought.

Tender, non-judgmental and full of sympathy for human frailty, The Blasphemer is a gripping and seductive read.

(Black Swan, paperback, £7.99)