The Blasphemer by Nigel Farndale was shortlisted for the 2010 Costa Book Award, and frankly, it rather beats me as to how that happened. It isn't that it is a BAD book, dreadful to read or anything like that; it's a book which if it were a person would suffer from multiple personality disorder. It doesn't seem to know what it is, or what it wants to be. There are about five storylines:
1) Daniel and Nancy go on an exotic holiday for their anniversary and events permanently change their relationship.
2) Andrew, a young soldier fights in WW1, whilst his grandson Philip tries to piece together his story
3) Wetherby, an embittered, pious, dried up academic seeks to destroy a colleagues career out of jealousy and spite
4) Hamdi, an innocent Muslim teacher is labelled as a 'clean-skin' and potential terrorist by the Security Services when he is accidentally caught up in a demonstration.
5) Martha, an overly mature 9 year old, begins behaving oddly and then goes missing.
The link between all these strands is Daniel: Philip is his father, Martha his daughter, Hamdi her teacher and Wetherby his colleague. But it just doesn't work. What frustrated me whilst reading this book is that each strand, taken alone, is a brilliant premise for a novel.
The first storyline could have been a brilliant examination of the effect of a being a disaster survivor upon a relationship, the second a great historical novel about love, cowardice and the folly of war. The third a creepy, atmospheric tale about a sinister saboteur who sets out to destroy an oblivious friend. The fourth a commentary about the treatment of Muslims in a post 9/11 and 7/7 world, and the last a look at the modern world in which parents live in a culture of fear with regard to child safety.
Instead, the novel is none and all of these things, an awful mish-mash of half ideas, concepts imagined and left hanging. It really feels as though Farndale started five separate novels, got writers block and in the end just bunged them all together. It's really odd, and feels like not just a wasted opportunity but five wasted opportunities. Particularly, I felt, in the character of Wetherby alone there was real potential for deep character development and a dark psychological thriller, in the vein of Ian McEwan's Enduring Love or Zoe Heller's Notes On A Scandal, but this does not occur.
In addition there is an examination of faith versus atheism underpinning the novel, but this again feels 'thrown in for good measure', underdeveloped and lacking in anything new to say. The end twist involving Hamdi does raise a small smile, but then the epilogue feels superfluous after this denouement.
One of the reasons I bought this novel was because of the amount of 5 star reviews it had on Amazon, which, I must say I'm a bit baffled by. One reviewer on Amazon said this :
Farndale has been compared by many to Sebastian Faulks; both for his descriptions of WW1 and tying together contemporary themes, such as fundamantalism, (sic) science and faith. Having read both 'Birdsong' and 'One week in December' (sic), I think The Blasphemer does it better.There is NO comparison in my eyes between this book and the sublime Birdsong, or between Farndale and Faulks. I find myself slightly horrified by the suggestion. I feel like she should wash her mouth out to be honest, as should any of these 'many' making comparisons. Yes, I thought 'A Week In December' was dreadful, but that book is the exception to my experience with Faulks as a writer. Faulks, at least, takes one idea and develops it, whereas Farndale can't seem to decide what the hell he wants his book to be about. There are some ridiculous 'as if' coincidences at the end too, such as the conclusion of the Wetherby storyline and the Martha storyline.
A book of opportunities wasted, I'm going to give this 5/10 a point for every great novel it could so easily have been.