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He had always been scared of flying. Now, the fear is real. A plane crash. The water is rising over his mouth. In his nostrils. Lungs. As Daniel gasps, he swallows; and punches at his seat-belt. Nancy, the woman he loves, is trapped in her seat. He clambers over her, pushing her face into the headrest. It is a reflex, visceral action made without rational thought...But Daniel Kennedy did it. And already we have judged him from the comfort of our own lives. Almost a hundred years earlier, Daniel's great-grandfather goes over the top at Passchendaele. A shell explodes, and he wakes up alone and lost in the hell of no-man's-land. Where are the others? Has he been left behind? And if he doesn't find his unit, is he a deserter? Love; cowardice; trust; forgiveness. How will any of us behave when we are pushed to extremes?
This novel gripped me from start to finish. The impossible demands placed on young men like Andrew in the trenches of the Great War; the fight-or-flight reflex that overwhelms his great grandson after a terrifying plane crash: Nigel Farndale uses both as jumping off points for a story about faith, courage, cowardice and redemption.
And the possibilities of the infinite, too. An old photograph of Andrew with an unnamed comrade, taken just before the hellish battle of Passchendaele, may not be what it seems. Nor are the sightings of a strangely familiar, wide-eyed man that Daniel keeps glimpsing, usually just before and after moments of great peril. Following a freakishly lucky escape from a terrorist bombing in London, Daniel, the unbeliever, begins to wonder if his survival is anything to do with luck at all.
There are wonderful characters in this book. Daniel’s father, Philip, an ex-military man who hides his love for his son behind a rigid emotional froideur; the truly wicked Wetherby, a professor who poses as Daniel’s friend at the university they both teach at, but who is in fact a Judas plotting to betray him. Interestingly – and amusingly - Wetherby is the most devoutly religious figure in the whole story.
The Blasphemer is a powerful morality tale, with a tantalising nod to the possibility that angels may indeed move among us.
How would any of us react in a moment of mortal danger? In a plane crash? In the heat and smoke of the battlefield? Would we be heroes, or cowards?
Nigel Farndale’s haunting novel goes to the heart of such questions and makes for an utterly compelling read. It tells the parallel stories of Andrew Kennedy, an unblooded young soldier about to go over the top in one of the deadliest battles of the First World War, and his great grandson, Daniel, about to face his own moment of truth in the present day.
In one of the most chilling descriptions of a plane crash I have ever read, we see Daniel make his fateful choice moments after impact, when he instinctively wrestles his fiancé aside so he can be first out of the wreckage. Seconds later, horrified, he goes back for her and rescues other survivors too, but he is haunted by his instinctive reflex to put himself first. So is she, and her love for him starts to flicker and die.
Meanwhile hints and clues from 1917 begin to whisper that Andrew Kennedy may not have been the war hero his descendants always assumed. And running alongside both men’s stories is a suggestion of the supernatural. Does the Kennedy clan have some kind of guardian angel watching over them?
Daniel, a staunch atheist, is gradually forced to question his lifelong certainties.
The plane crash and how he reacts to it is a key moment for Daniel. How do you think you would behave in that situation?
The Blasphemer is a novel about consequences and the interconnectedness of things. Discuss the parallel lives of grandfather, father and son.
What does this novel tell us about the nature of belief?
What do you make of the significance of the title of the novel?
Do you allow anyone to read your books before being published other than the publisher and is there a reason behind that?
I do, but I can see there might be a danger in showing it to too many people: you might end up with contradictory opinions. Five people read the manuscript of The Blasphemer before it was sent to a publisher: my wife Mary, my agent David Miller, and my friends Emma Howard (a freelance fiction editor), John Preston (a novelist), and Chris Lang (who writes TV dramas). They all made useful comments, especially about the structure: they said, independently of each other, that it should change from being in three parts - present, past, present - to a continual narrative that weaves constantly back and forth between the two time signatures. I did as they suggested and I think the book was better for it. My wife is the most terrifying critic I have ever encountered, by the way. I know that if my ego can survive her comments it can survive anything professional reviewers throw at it.
What literary inspirations do you draw from?
For pleasure as well as literary inspiration I tend to read poetry (I never tire of Betjeman, Larkin, Heaney, Hardy, and Auden) and history (Anthony Beevor, Michael Burleigh, Niall Ferguson et al). The novelists I like to read, and re-read, are John Updike, Philip Roth, James Baldwin, Evelyn Waugh, Vladimir Nabokov and Ian McEwan.
What is the best book you have ever read and how did you come to that conclusion?
Lolita. I love Nabokov's eye for detail and the way he blends melancholy with humour, and prose with poetry. Lolita is a novel of great warmth, empathy and irony, especially regarding its unreliable narrator. But it's also unnerving. Brave too. And open to interpretation and misinterpretation. Every time I read it I find something new - a literary allusion I missed, or a delicate metaphor, or a lyrical phrase. I try to leave gaps long enough between readings in the hope that I might have forgotten some of it and enjoy it anew.
If you could work with any author who would it be?
Richard Dawkins. Whenever I read a book by him I learn something new about the natural world. See it with a fresh eye. I admire the way his mind works and the originality of his perspective. And I think he writes beautifully. Not sure he would get quite as much out of the working relationship as me. Perhaps I could make the tea.
How do you manage to get inside the heads of all your different characters in order to portray them truthfully?
Daniel Kennedy, the central character in The Blasphemer, was easy enough, because there is some of me in him. Other characters tend to be a mix of people I have encountered, but they all start out as two dimensional sketches: perhaps a description that includes profession, age, sex, then a few words about their personality. They become three-dimensional through empathy, trying to get inside their heads and imagining how they would feel, act and so on, given their personality traits. Finding their tone of voice - the quirks of their speech - is, for me, an important step to finding their character. The uptight Wetherby, for example, never uses contractions in his speech, until the end when he loosens up a little. Nancy often drops the 'I's from verbs, making her sound modest, but also impatient. Once I get to know characters - once they start reacting to events in ways that are consistent with their characters - scenes almost write themselves. Having only one viewpoint per scene is of course important in terms of truthful portrayal. Another literary device I try to use is free indirect style. The prose reflects the thoughts of the subject, so that, say, the language became less sophisticated in scenes involving the nine-year-old Martha.
Who is your favourite character from any book and why?
I've always been intrigued, if that's the right word, by Julia Flyte in Brideshead Revisited, because of the way her character changes and develops throughout the book, becoming more likeable and complex. When you first meet her she is a confident, flirtatious, slightly arch debutant. By the middle of the book she emerges as a cynical, cold and unconventional society beauty. At the end, she is revealed as romantic and vulnerable yet morally courageous. She comes to feel her relationship with Charles is immoral and decides to separate from him, even though she loves him. She is more aware of her own self-deceptions than any of the other characters in the book. Above all, I think it is her flaws that make her so plausible and appealing.
How do you decide on the names of your characters?
As the 1917 narrative involved cowardice, I didn't want the name of my central character to be that of a soldier who had actually died in the First World War, so I went to the Imperial War Museum and used their database. Every combination of first name and surname I typed into the computer - dozens of them - matched someone who was killed in the trenches. It was a sobering moment when I realised this. The scale of the carnage… In the end I came up with the name Andrew Kennedy for the opposite reason: because there were a lot of Andrew Kennedys in the First World War. I chose Andrew because I didn't want him to have an old fashioned name such as Albert, one that would make his story harder for a modern readership to identify with. His great grandson, the other central character, is called Daniel because I thought that name had a clean and rather elegiac feel to it - also, I don't know anyone by that name. Wetherby, the morally corrupt character in the book, is named after the village in Yorkshire which I always see on the road signs when visiting my parents. It seems to suit his ambiguity.
Do you have any little quirks or funny habits when you are writing?
Instead of cigarette breaks I make 'postcard' chess moves, about one an hour via email with my writer friend Chris Lang. We've been playing like this every day for about nine years now. It helps us both think. And we keep each other amused with the insulting messages we write in the space provided alongside the chess moves box. I'm leading at the moment, sixteen tournaments to fourteen, because he's rubbish at chess. Plays like a monkey wearing boxing gloves.
How long did the book take you to write?
Eight years, from start to finish. But I wasn't working on it all that time. Indeed I wrote a non-fiction book in between, a biography of William and Margaret Joyce, better known as Lord and Lady Haw-Haw. I was also doing my day job as an interviewer and columnist for the Sunday Telegraph.
What writing plans do you have for next year?
I am aiming to finish a new novel, which doesn't have a title yet.
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The Secrets Between Us
Title: The Blasphemer
Publisher: Transworld Publishers Ltd
Publication Date: 20/01/2011
ISBN 10: 0552776173
Imprint: Black Swan
ISBN 13: 9780552776172
An amazing novel! I thoroughly enjoyed this book from start to finish. Very descriptive and informative. The two stories run alongside each other of Daniel in present day and Andrew in the first world war. When you do reach the end all loose ends of the story are tied up beautifully! One of the best books I have read in a long time. Would give this 10/10.
Nigel Farndale is the author of Haw-Haw: The Tragedy of William and Margaret Joyce, which was shortlisted for the Whitbread Prize and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. He lives on the Hampshire-Sussex border with his wife and their three children.
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