BOOKS: When love of truth meets the truth of love

Carol Birch The Evangelist By Clare George SCEPTRE pounds 16.99 (391pp) pounds 15.99 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897
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Max Oldroyd is a passionately atheist evolutionary biologist, the author of a bestselling book about genes, a man on a mission to explain science to the masses and rout the forces of superstition and religion. When we first encounter Max he is a man in crisis, divorced and largely estranged from his three grown-up children. He feels under siege: a newspaper has accused him of evangelism and implied that his family has been driven away by his zeal.

What disturbs him most is that someone very close to him must have spoken to the journalist. This prompts a long soul-searching. Clare George's insightful new novel consists of Max's retrospective of a life devoted to the search for objective truth.

In his youth, Max had been repelled by God's "constant need for praise... such hopeless insecurity meant that He was far too pathetic to be worthy of worship". What Max seeks is a gloriously indifferent authority, and he finds it in science. "I was aware," he says, speaking of love, "that my desire for Sally was motivated almost entirely by the urge to reproduce. But this understanding... bore no relation to what I actually felt."

We are left in no doubt that an atheist materialist can also be an utter romantic. Max is sensitive, a loving husband and father, an idealist who grows misty-eyed thinking of his baby daughter's meticulous examination of the world when she possessed all the innocence of "the primal scientific urge", before the world could contaminate her with metaphor and myth.

He is also a very angry man, his life having been changed irrevocably by a tour of the Southern states of America. Max in the Bible Belt is a lamb to the slaughter, and what happens scars him deeply. His savaging pushes him into Holy War.

At the heart of the book is Max's relationship with his beloved step- daughter, Cass. Imbued with his teachings, she grows up and finally encounters her real father, only to discover that he means nothing at all. Max, her "true" father, shares none of her genes, yet continues to spread the word of the gene relentlessly. The confusion becomes too much for Cass, who rebels in time-honoured tradition.

This is a book full of ideas and debates, moral ponderings and the grace of science. I thought there were one or two unnecessary neatnesses in the plot, but that's a minor point in a novel written with such thoughtful intelligence, one that manages to demonise and idealise none.

Ultimately, The Evangelist is a book about the necessity for seriousness. Even worse than the idiocy of creationists is the sheer trivia of the blandly religious. Stuck in a meaningless church ceremony, Max despairs, "deeply offended by the vainness in which they took the Lord's name. This is serious, my own voice kept muttering... and in those moments I knew I was truly alone."

Carol Birch's latest novel is `Turn Again Home' (Virago)