As someone born and bred in Oxford, I was particularly excited to read a thriller set in the city at a time when it is both familiar and alien – it’s 1940, the road signs are gone or switched, artistic treasures and government offices have moved into the colleges and museums, and the certainty that a life in academia can be safe or peaceful is gone. Pantheon tells the story of young Oxford don James Zennor who returns home from his morning row to discover that his beloved wife Florence and their son Harry have gone. They haven’t been stolen away, they have left of their own accord. But why?
For the rest of the novel we follow Zennor on the trail of his family, beginning with the clues left from the past, when Zennor met the brave and proud Florence in the beginnings of the Spanish Civil War, a conflict that left Zennor permanently injured, in pain and never able to fight another war. The breadcrumbs lead Zennor to the United States and Yale University, where Zennor discovers that his is not the only family uprooted. But as we learn about the mysterious disappearance of Florence Zennor we also learn more about her husband. This is a man who carries more scars from the Spanish Civil War than the wound in his shoulder. His post traumatic stress becomes ever more apparent to both us and to him and this painful increasing self-awareness is half of Zennor’s battle.
Pantheon is a thriller about eugenics, a subject that preoccupied the Nazis and, as it is shown here, part of a much longer tradition that academia on both sides of the pond took an interest in for years. The stakes are great, driven by the highest ranks of British and American society, and Zenner’s desperation matches his increasing danger. As we follow his panicked search through Oxford, to Liverpool and the docks, and then to America, the forces against him slowly come into focus, sometimes from the most unexpected places, and his isolation closes him in.
The premise of the story is a very interesting one, as is its setting in Oxford and Yale. I can certainly vouch for the accuracy of the Oxford locations. The atmosphere is evocative of both the time and the danger. However, although my interest in the story kept me turning the pages quickly, I had very little empathy for James Zennor – never more than a cold man – and I had no more for his wife. Her secret departure never seemed to me in character and despite the promising beginnings she doesn’t regain the life of her first appearances. There is some amends for this, though, in the range and appeal of other personalities who help and hinder Zennor in his quest.
The final third is far more exciting than believable and while this is often not a problem with thrillers – far from it – this is one of those rare occasions when it might be. Nevertheless, this is a wartime thriller with a difference and it tested my complacency about those dark years.
Many thanks to HarperCollins for the early copy!