While I am usually not a fan of war novels, Farndale so cleverly blends modern-day London and a battle in France in World War I that the lessons of history - and one family - transcend time in a moment of crisis, redefined by experience.
David Kennedy and Nancy, the mother of his daughter, take a trip to the Galapagos Islands. The couple has so far avoided discussions of marriage, although David does have a surprise in mind for Nancy. But the relationship is turned upside-down when their plane crashes into the ocean and Davidís instinctive reaction causes a painful rift that deeply affects the coupleís future. When David pushes past Nancy in his panic, then returns to save her and others, neither discusses his action, the truth festering between them.
The situation is complicated by Davidís celebrated heroism on behalf of others and by the appearance of a guide (what David calls an ďhallucinationĒ), an apparition that leads the young man to safety, allowing him to regroup and come back for the others. As an atheist, this experience leaves David with unanswered questions about his religious convictions, or lack thereof. The fact that his ďangelĒ has a familiar face is even more confusing. With modern-day London in the throes of local terrorist attacks, the public unease growing, as is the antipathy towards Muslims in general.
While David has not chosen a military career, both his father and grandfather are decorated heroes, proud of the familyís military record. Less is known about the fate of Davidís great-grandfather, Andrew Kennedy, who experiences his own miraculous rescue in the novel during a terrible battle in France in World War I, a more primitive battlefield where dead and butchered bodies lie in muddy heaps and mustard gas poisons the air. The links between these two Kennedys are their actions in crisis and the appearance to each of a figure who leads them to safety. In World War I, there were tales of an ďangel of Mons,Ē reputed to appear in extremity and lead soldiers from harm. Whether myth or fact, this figure has become part of wartime legend.
The addition of Andrew Kennedy to the novel not only gives the story more depth but also offers a basis for considering the actions of men in crisis, whether the decision of a moment should color that manís history. The tensions in this novel are situational: the atheist led to safety, the soldier surrounded by death, following a figure through the horrors of war to a safe harbor. What is blasphemous, after all, in words or deeds? Davidís actions in crisis and the appearance of a guide are subject to interpretation, as is Andrew Kennedyís deliverance from the field of battle.
The authorís capacity for compassion really gives this novel its emotional depth, the expansion of the possible and the recognition of the futility of boundaries between the known and the unknown world. While we often fail to learn the lessons of history in the heat of everyday concerns, this young man and his connection to his great-grandfather are a reminder of the continuity of human experience, the terrible cost of war and the necessity of forgiveness, even when we are most unwilling.