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The Blasphemer    by Nigel Farndale order for
by Nigel Farndale
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Crown, 2010 (2010)
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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

The Blasphemer by Nigel Farndale follows two gripping story lines - one following English zoologist Daniel Kennedy in the modern day, and the other covering the experiences of Daniel's great-grandfather Andrew Kennedy during and after the horrific World War I battle of Passchendaele. It could be argued that Charles Darwin's quote at the beginning says it all: 'Monkeys make men. Men make angels.'

The 1917 Prologue shows the first meeting of two key historical characters, the half mad Major Peter Morris (previously a conductor) and, new to the trenches, young Private Andrew Kennedy (a plumber in his prior life). Fast forwarding to present day London, we meet atheist zoologist Daniel Kennedy implementing a romantic plan to propose to the woman he loves (his dentist and the mother of his nine-year-old daughter Martha), Nancy Palmer. He has arranged a surprise tenth anniversary trip to the Galápagos Islands.

Daniel's father Philip is a retired army surgeon, remote in manner and 'capable of terrible, genial coldness. It wasn't anything he said; it was what he didn't say.' When they drop Martha off with her Grampy and Grumpy, Philip gives his son some of Andrew Kennedy's personal effects, including letters (in French) and a musical score - he hopes that Nancy will translate the letters.

Disaster strikes the seaplane en route from Quito to Santa Cruz Island and it goes down. Daniel's visceral reaction is to escape and he climbs over Nancy to do so. Though he returns immediately to rescue her and other passengers - and then heroically swims to the Galápagos Islands to find help - neither can forget his first reaction, which taints their relationship for a long time. And on the way to the islands, ready to give up, Daniel has a vision that saves his life.

Another modern player is Daniel's colleague, vice provost (and professor of music) Laurence Wetherby. While Daniel believes him to be a good friend, Nigel Farndale shows his true character to readers. In Daniel's absence, Wetherby knifes him in the back, scuttling his appointment to the zoology chair, and blackening his reputation for no obvious reason. Wetherby passionately seeks an alternate opening to Mahler's Ninth symphony, 'His meditation on dying.'

Scattered throughout the story, both in the past and the present day, are visions (hallucinations?) of what seems to be the same man - who is he? Quests are eventually concluded - Wetherby sees the score he sought, while Philip and Daniel learn the fate of their ancestor - but in surprising ways. Good people are reconciled, and along the way, Farndale explores the nature of both belief and blasphemy.

Don't miss The Blasphemer, an excellent novel, which offers continuous food for thought - on courage and cowardice, good and evil, love and hate, failure and redemption. This is a novel that merits more than one read.

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