The Blasphemerby Nigel Farndale
Richard Dawkins raises the hackles of plenty of people with his manner as much as his standpoint (I was going to say beliefs then, but I know he would get angry with me for using a word like that for what he would consider nothing less than FACTS) and those who have belief and faith might even have found themselves in a darker moment placing him at the mercy of a life-threatening situation to see whether it might provoke if not a change of heart at least a little humility. In his ambitious debut novel Farndale does just that by placing Daniel Kennedy, nematologist, a kind of Dawkins b-team (literally at one point when he is bumped off a TV panel when the man himself becomes available), and aerophobe into a plane crash on his way to the Galapagos Islands with long term partner Nancy. The man of reason and science is forced to confront the basis of what he holds to be true when he is helped on his way to swimming over 20 miles of open sea, against the odds, to get help for the floating survivors. What is he helped by? A vision? A hallucination? An angel?
Daniel's adherence to atheism and science finds its root in his rejection of God at the age of five when his mother died of cancer. Since then he has made sensible decision after sensible decision, based on the evidence, making steady progress within Trinity college as he heads towards professorship, building a family unit without the validation of marriage and yet, and yet. The trip to the Galapagos is a surprise for Nancy on their 10th anniversary and he has plans to finally place a ring on that finger and make it all official until fate intervenes and sends them plummeting into the Carribbean.
Farndale has the tension ramped up pretty high for the whole flight, Daniel's fear of flying being put to the test by withdrawing the medication he would usually take to tranquillise himself. With the accident itself and the aftermath he shows himself to be adept at conveying a real sense of crisis and also cleverly creates the personal event that will come between Daniel and Nancy. The power of evolutionary concepts like 'fight or flight' and 'survival of the fittest' is laid bare when Daniel climbs over Nancy to escape the sinking plane.
With a scrum-half's hand-off that flattened her nose and dragged her lips sideways, he pushed her cheek and jaw into the headrest. It was a reflex, visceral action slowed down by the water; and adrenal moment they would both replay time and again, always with he same damning frame frozen in time.
Despite coming back, oxygen replenished, to rescue her and then making the swim of his life to raise the alarm for the rest of the survivors, this single moment comes down like a barrier between them and the shockwaves on their relationship are nicely realised. That marathon swim contains one of several moments of fragile reality.
Then he saw him. A young man with a lapidary smile and protrudent wide-set eyes was treading water no more than ten yards away, gently beckoning with his hand. Delicate boned, olive-skinned and with contour, quiddity and mass, the man was completely present, yet could not be. Only his head and shoulders were visible - he wasn't wearing a life vest - and in the trough that followed a cresting wave he disappeared.
The fact that this vision occurs at a time when Daniel was trying to remove his own life-vest is what gives it its sense of protectiveness. When he continues to see that face afterwards he cannot help but examine what might be possible, even within the realms of science. As one of his colleagues puts it:
The mind of the scientist is open to all possibilities. Take the uncertainty of the subatomic world. It is supposedly full of fluctuations that apply to space-time as well. So up and down, left and right, even past, present and future are no longer as predictable at the subatomic level. The past could walk into the present. Your great grandfather Daniel, or yours Wetherby, could walk into this room right now.
There is something rather convenient about alighting on Daniel's great-grandfather as the other major storyline that runs through the book, which I haven't even begun to touch on yet concerns that very man, Andrew Kennedy, and his experience fighting at Ypres and beyond. The description of fear before going over the top has echoes in that fear of flying mentioned earlier and Farndale develops his themes of heroism and cowardice in both strands and indeed in their sub-plots. In fact if I have a criticism of the book it is that it seeks to do too much. There is a storyline involving a possible alternate opening to Mahler's ninth symphony, a Machiavellian vice-provost within the university whose deep religious faith is matched by his extraordinary, vindictive wickedness towards those he seems to hold closest to him, a clumsy post-9/11 terrorist thread that threatens to turn the ending of the book into an airport thriller and plenty more besides. I mention all of these not to spoil any plot but to show the sheer prevalence of it. I personally would have enjoyed just following the trajectories of Daniel and his great grandfather as they struggle to deal with their most human instincts in times of crisis, as it is here that Farndale writes best and takes some bold creative steps in uniting his themes and images. It is brave to attempt a book of this scale as a first novel and it would be unfair of me to pick holes in it, there is enough here to show that Farndale can write, you just have to pick your way through some treacherous terrain to see it.