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The Blasphemer by Nigel Farndale

This was the last novel I finished reading in 2009, and it was solid yet gripping, a satisfying read that explores big and complicated emotions – yet I’ve struggled in my thoughts about how to do it justice in a review.

Where to start? Examining the cover gives a clue to the two strands of the story. We start in a prologue at Ypres, 1917 as the troops are preparing to go over the top on the first day of Passchendaele. A young private is searching for the major, only finding an apparently shell-shocked officer conducting an imaginary orchestra from a sheet of music in front of him.

Then we’re taken back to the present day and meet Daniel, the great-grandson of the young soldier. Daniel is a biologist, a Darwinian atheist (in the mould of a young Dawkins), a successful university lecturer and TV presenter. He’s working on his grand gesture – taking his girlfriend, the mother of his child, on a surprise trip to the Galapagos islands to tie the knot. But before they can get there, their plane crashes in the ocean. Daniel is faced with a life and death decision – whether to save Nancy and possibly perish himself, or to save himself. He swims for help, helped by turtle and a vision of a figure who leads his to safety. Luckily Nancy survives, but she can’t help feeling that Daniel betrayed her, and he is full of guilt. Their relationship falters, and Daniel becomes increasingly desperate to find redemption.

This is when the two stories start to entwine ever more deeply, as Daniel begins to investigate the story of what happened to his great-grandfather, spurred on by letters that his own father has kept all these years. As a counterpoint to Daniel’s story, we meet Wetherby, who is jealous of Daniel’s media profile, and is seeking to influence the Dean over the appointment of the new professor, he makes insinuations about Daniel who pre-crash was a shoe-in for the job.

I’m not saying any more about what happens, but it builds into a real exploration of emotions – guilt, courage, cowardice, jealousy, love, but most of all faith and belief. Once I got past the slightly slow start, it became a compulsive read, the WWI sections were particularly evocative, recalling John Singer Sargent’s painting ‘Gassed‘.

I can thoroughly recommend this big and ambitious novel with a vivid cast of strong characters, which is published this month. (9/10, book supplied by Amazon Vine)

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