There’s a lot going on in Nigel Farndale‘s new novel, which is good because it keeps the pages turning; but I feel that The Blasphemer ultimately tries to hold more than it can contain.
In the present day, zoologist (and atheist) Daniel Kennedy takes his partner Nancy on a surprise trip to the Galápagos Islands — but, before they get there, their light aircraft crash-lands at sea.At first, instinct leads Daniel to push past Nancy on his way out of the stricken plane, before returning to help her — but he ultimately saves the day by swimming all the way to land and finding help. On his way there, though, Daniel is spurred on by an apparent vision of a familiar-seeming man — a man who turns out to be his daughter’s teacher, Hamdi Said-Ibrahim, whom Daniel meets for the first time on his return to London.
Several months after the crash, Daniel’s relationship with Nancy (which was already precarious) has foundered, because she blames him for saving himself first instead of her. On top of this, Daniel is struggling to rationalise what he saw in the ocean — was he hallucinating or could he have a guardian angel? — and his career is under threat thanks to the machinations of Laurence Wetherby, his college’s vice-provost, who’s spreading rumours that Daniel has a fragile mental state and is consorting with terrorists (Hamdi having been wrongly labelled thus).
Intertwined with this narrative is the story of Daniel’s great-grandfather, Andrew, who fought at Passchendaele, but then deserted and embarked on an affair with a French widow. The full truth of Andrew’s life will emerge by novel’s end.
As I said, there’s a lot going on — and this synopsis by no means covers all of it. What to make of The Blasphemer, then?
I’ve already suggested that I have reservations about the novel, and one of these concerns the characterisatiobn. Some of the characters have quirks that can irritate, such as Nancy’s habit of calling her nine-year-old daughter ‘the baby'; and Daniel’s know-all tendencies — though I must say the latter pays off to great effect when Daniel witnesses an explosion, and Farndale describes the experience in coldly scientific terms.
It’s relatively easy to put up with this sort of thing, though; more problematic are some character issues on which the plot hinges. I had trouble believing that Nancy would hold her grudge against Daniel for so long: I can (just about) believe that she’d resent Daniel for barging past her on the aircraft and leaving her behind momentarily (though it seems a pretty extreme reaction to something she must surely realise was instinctive, especially given that he returned to her shortly after); I find it much harder to accept that she would still hold the same view months later, and not judge Daniel’s actions in the round — he was responsible for everyone being rescued, after all.
The character of Wetherby didn’t ring true for me, either — he abuses the power of his position to a phenomenal extent, spreading lies about anyone to whom he takes a disliking, having a relationship with one of his students (who seems to accept the situation quite happily)… it’s too much for me to be able to take that character seriously — and, since Wetherby’s actions underpin a good proportion of the plot events, that’s a problem.
I’m also unsatisfied with the novel’s treatment of one of its main themes, that of science versus belief. This is exemplified by Daniwel’s vision/hallucination; there are various debates between him, the scientist, and the religious people in his life — but, ultimately, nothing that I haven’t come across before, leading me to conclude that this strand of The Blasphemer doesn’t go anywhere interesting (and, on the level of plot, the implied solution to the mystery of Daniel’s ‘vision’ is telegraphed too early on, and doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny).
Better, I think, is the book’s exploration of cowardice. Here, Farndale sets up a parallel between Daniel and Andrew, both of whom commit acts viewed as cowardly by some within the narrative. There are some interesting contrasts — for example, the judgement of cowardice is institutional in Andrew’s case, but more personal in Daniel’s. The thing is, though, that, as well as the main parallels between the two storylines, Farndale puts in a number of tangential echoes and connections (e.g. Daniel’s profession and the Galápagos Islands link him to Darwin, whose great-nephew. the text reminds us, was Ralph Vaughan Williams, who makes an appearance in Andrew’s narrative) which don’t, to my mind, cohere properly. The effect is not to amplify the parallels but to complicate them needlessly (this is the main reason for my earlier comment about the novel ‘trying to hold more than it can contain’).
I appreciate that’s quite a lot of criticism; so what does The Blasphemer do well? The wartime scenes especially, I think. The passages describing Andrew ‘s experiences in the trenches and on the battlefield are superbly vivid; and Farndale is subtle in showing the deleterious effects that warfare could have on a man. (The ending of Andrew’s narrative is also much more satisfactory than that of Daniel’s.)
For me, The Blasphemer falls into the category of ‘flawed but interesting’, which would normally lead me to suggest that it was worth a look. But the book’s flaws are such that I’m not sure how easily I can say that. It’s not bad by any means, and some parts are very fine indeed; but you have to do a fair bit of mental pruning to see them clearly.