Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Pantheon, by Sam Bourne

Having read previous Sam Bourne novels, and as someone who enjoys historical thrillers, this book came as a big disappointment. Not only was the plot very shallow, but also the protagonist was a man for whom you found it very difficult to have sympathy.
In fact, it seems a common theme for Sam Bourne books to have very strong, very modern female characters, and yet the men are often self-obsessed, self-loathing and sadly for all their supposed academic prowess, are not too intelligent either.
The plot, for all that there is, runs as follows.  It is 1940 and a veteran of the Spanish Civil War, James Zennor, who has been rejected for military service, returns home to find that his wife Florence and two year old child Harry are missing.  The rest of the novel concerns his attempts at trying to find them.
It turns out that they have been evacuated to Yale University in the United States along with other mothers and children, but because of his recent violent temper (it is intimated that Zennor is suffering from Post Traumatic Stress), he is the only husband not to have been told about it.
When he finally finds out, Zennor travels to Yale to get his family back and discovers a more sinister plot afoot concerning eugenics.  He then becomes determined, as a British patriot, to ensure that he puts a stop to it.

As I said before, the character of James Zennor is very difficult to have sympathy for.  He seems to be full of bitterness and self-loathing, and all his anger is directed at his wife and young son.  Compounding this is a self-obsession that stops him even seeing it until after his wife has left him.  You can begin to see why his wife left and even seventy pages in you want to say good luck to her.
There is no direct reason given for this man’s actions however.  Even the few chapters that deal with his experiences in the Civil War show that he was quick to anger, jumping to conclusions and not listening to others before his so called traumatic incident.  So this is clearly not an excuse.
The villains are sadly just as one-dimensional as the protagonist, seemingly giving themselves away with ease, and  a novel such as this does stand and fall on its major characters.  If you don’t want them to succeed, or at least don’t care, it becomes a bore to read and only a vague curiosity in the ending keeps you going.

But if the characterisation is poor, so is the writing itself.  Setting a novel in a historical period cannot be easy; however the section describing how the character learns to eat pizza, a food not common in 1940’s England, is clunky and over-elaborated.  Maybe it was designed to be funny, a joke on how our culture has become more americanised perhaps?  Either way it came across as confused and took attention away from the story at hand.

My only hope is that the writer goes back to the political fiction in which he has had success and leaves the historical thrillers to the likes of Robert Harris who do them best.

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