Friday, April 24, 2015

Review of Pandaemonium by Christopher Brookmyre (Abacus, 2009)

After witnessing the murder of a fellow pupil, senior students of St Peter’s High School are taken on a weekend retreat to a secluded outdoor centre in the Scottish Highlands. Divided into cliques and full of hormones, anxieties, sexual insecurities and curiosities, and bravado, as well as counselling and prayer there’s an expectation of parties and clandestine liaisons.  Accompanying them are three teachers and a young priest, hoping they can maintain control.  Nearby, at a top-secret military base scientists and priests are conducting an experiment that seems to have opened a portal into Hell.  Fighting for control of the project and its future, with the military and ensnared demons in the middle, it looks like religion is going to get its way and the portal closed.  Similar debates about science and theology, philosophy and faith, are happening at the retreat, but very soon they are going to be put into practice as two worlds collide.

There are two great strengths to Pandaemonium: the wonderful way in which Brookmyre captures the personalities, insecurities and interactions of school trip to an outdoor centre; and the exploration of the themes of science and theology.  Although it was sometimes a little confusing trying to follow the stories, insecurities and interrelations between thirty or so characters, the teenage angst and clique dynamics is very well evoked.  In contrast, whilst the scientists and priests in the secret research centre are well penned, they lacked the same vitality.  Where that thread of the story excelled was in the exploration of scientific philosophy and faith, with some really great passages about physics and theology.  Running through both threads is a nice streak of dark humour.  Up to about two thirds of the way through I thought the book was fabulous – insightful, rich, layered and fun.  Then it takes an altogether darker turn towards horror as the two worlds of the outdoor centre and the research labs collide, with some fairly graphic violence and the more literary, thoughtful storytelling being jettisoned for gory action.  And whilst Brookmyre tries to pull it all back round to philosophy and theology in the last few pages, it seems to end a little too abruptly and without a clear sense of the thoughts of all the leading characters.  Nonetheless, Pandaemonium was a great read – lively, engaging, thought provoking, with a dollop of black comedy.


Unknown said...

Now this is what reviewers should be doing all the time. Your assessment is honest, clear, and helpful. I can now make an informed decision about whether or not to read what you have read. I wish more bloggers followed your example. Bravo!

Rob Kitchin said...

Thanks, RT. It's a good book. It's always great to read someone who's inventive and not derivative.