Conclave by Robert Harris

The Pope is dead, long live the Pope…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

conclaveCardinal Lomeli fears the worst when he gets an urgent summons to the bedside of the elderly Pope. By the time he gets there, the Pope has died. Even as the various cardinals kneel by his bedside to pray, one thought is in all of their minds – a new Pope will have to be chosen, and soon. Some are ambitious and would welcome the challenge, some even have informal teams in place to canvas for them, others fear the enormity of the role and include in their prayers a plea to God that He will not choose them. As Dean of the College of Cardinals, Cardinal Lomeli will have the task of running the Conclave – the meeting of all the cardinal electors to whom will fall the task of selecting the new Pope.

This is an absolutely fascinating and absorbing look at the process of how a new Pope is chosen. In the first few pages, we are introduced to so many people that I feared I’d never get a handle on who they all were, but quite quickly Harris develops the main players well enough for them to start to emerge as individuals, and, as the book goes on, we, like the cardinals, spend so much time sequestered in the claustrophobic atmosphere of the Conclave that we become aware of their weakness and strengths. The Conclave works as a series of ballots, and by about the second ballot, I found I was totally engrossed in picking the man I thought would make the best Pope just as much as the characters in the book were.

Of course, this is a novel, not a factual book, so Harris makes sure there are plenty of scandals and secrets to come out, each one subtly changing the balance of power amongst the cardinals. But I found it refreshing that he chose not to try to denigrate the process by making it look like an entirely political battle for control of this enormously powerful organisation, nor by going for the easy target of the recent child abuse scandals. While many of the characters are flawed and ambitious, they are on the whole shown as true Christians, struggling through prayer and conscience to decide what’s best for their Church and their religion. We see the desire of the majority of these men to open their hearts to God, believing that He will guide them in their decision. I don’t know, of course, whether it’s really like that in a Conclave, but I rather hope it is.

On Lomeli went. Bellini… Benitez… Brandão D’Cruz… Brotkus… Cárdenas… Contreras… Courtemarche… He knew them all so much better now, their foibles and their weaknesses. A line of Kant’s came into his mind: “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made…” The Church was built of crooked timber – how could it not be? But by the grace of God it fitted together. It had endured two thousand years; if necessary it would last another two weeks without a Pope. He felt suffused by a deep and mysterious love for his colleagues and their frailties.

Crucifixion of St Peter by Michelangelo in the Pauline Chapel where the ballots are cast...
Michelangelo’s Crucifixion of St Peter in the Pauline Chapel where the ballots are cast…

Harris shows the divisions in the Church between the traditionalists and the modernisers, suggesting almost that the Church could be facing schism if the new Pope fails to find a way to bridge the gulf. The Italian cardinals still think of it as their Church and hope for a return to an Italian papacy; the African cardinals feel liberalisation has gone too far, particularly over questions like homosexuality, and have a keen desire to see the first black Pope; the Americans and Europeans would like to see that liberalisation taken still further, with even some dangerous talk of women being given more prominent positions in the higher echelons of the Curia. And the plot also touches on the question of the religious fundamentalism sweeping the world, bringing war and terror in its wake, and how the various factions feel the Church should respond to that.

Amidst all this, Cardinal Lomeli must deal with the secrets that come to light, battling with his conscience as to how much he should allow himself to interfere with the process. Sequestered from the world for the duration, still scraps of information make their way in that could influence the minds of the electors. Should he tell, or should he remain silent? Will his interference look like a shabby attempt to sway the vote in his own preferred direction? Lomeli is a wonderful character, fully developed and entirely believable, a man who finds more strength than he ever thought he had, and who spends much of his time searching his own heart in a bid to ensure that he is truly open to God’s will.

I read this book over two days and any time I had to stop, I couldn’t wait to get back to it. You may be wondering then why it hasn’t got the full five stars from me. And annoyingly, I can’t tell you because it would take the review deep into spoiler territory. So all I can say is that the book crossed the credibility line twice for me – once forgivably in terms of taking some fictional licence, but the other leaving me feeling that the amazingly authentic impression given by the bulk of the book had been somewhat spoiled. So I’m afraid it only gets four and a half stars in the end, despite having been one of the books I’ve most enjoyed reading this year. But I still highly recommend it, especially since your credibility line may well be drawn in a different place from mine. And I hope you’ll all read it very quickly because, if I don’t have someone to discuss it with soon, I may well spontaneously combust!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Hutchinson.

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17 thoughts on “Conclave by Robert Harris

  1. This does sound utterly absorbing, FictionFan. I think one of the tricky things about historical fiction is to keep the story moving along and keeping the reader’s interest without also pandering, if I can put it that way. I’m also one of those people who prefers historical fiction that feels authentic. And it sounds as though Harris has hit the mark on both counts. What an interesting topic, too; there’s so much about choosing a pope that feels mysterious, so it’s a good topic for a novel, I think. Glad you enjoyed it.

    • Yes, I wondered if he’d be able to keep it interesting given that the entire book takes place in one small location more or less. But he certainly did! And I was very relieved he didn’t take the opportunity to disparage the Catholic church over the recent scandals too much – there’s been so much of that recently, some of it deserved of course, but like anything else, it becomes tedious when every writer covers the same ground. It’s the quality of his research, I think, that makes his books feel authentic, plus he’s a great storyteller…

  2. I’ve loved everything I’ve read by Robert Harris (An Officer and a Spy and the three Cicero novels) and I can’t wait to read this one! I’m pleased to hear you enjoyed it – I’m intrigued by your hints at why it lost half a star, but I’m hoping to read the book myself very soon so I’ll be able to see what I think.

    • This is my third and he’s now firmly established as one if my favourite authors! I really loved reading this one and was kinda sorry to deduct that half star, but it had to be. Can’t wait to start seeing other people’s reviews to see what they think – do hurry up and read it! 😉

  3. Oh dear. I hope someone will read this soon so you won’t combust. It sounds like a great book. I wondered how the decision was made to choose a new pope. But I can’t get read this book in the near future unfortunately.

    • So do I!! Fortunately, my blog buddy Lady Fancifull should be starting it any time now, and she’s a fast reader, so hopefully I’ll survive… 😉 It is great, and I’m certain will have been well researched so that all the traditions and processes will be accurate – intriguing stuff. One to keep on your list for the future…

  4. Oh, this is tempting. I should have read this before visiting the Vatican a few years ago for the first time. I found the Papal selection to be fascinating. Hmmm, I will have to think about this, as I have just added 2 books over the weekend to my TBR!

    • I’ve never been to Rome despite being relatively close – too hot for me! But I must say that as I was reading this, I was really regretting never having seen the locations. He talks quite a lot about the paintings in the Sistine and Pauline chapels. Google helps, of course! You mean you added books I didn’t recommend?? Shocking!! But this one’s definitely worth squeezing onto your TBR – go on! You know you want to! 😉

      • Wow. If you think Rome is too hot, I can’t imagine what you’d think of Phoenix in the summer! We’re finally down from triple digits, thank goodness.

        I was enthralled staring up at the Sistine Chapel, and I’m not even religious! I was careful of the thunderbolts, however, being raised Catholic. 😉

        I know! Can you believe I added two books that haven’t met the FF Seal of Approval?! I’m nervous now… I added “All Things Cease to Appear” and “A Man Called Ove”, which my mother insisted I would love. Have you read either?

  5. I have to say a spontaneously combusting FF is a frightening image!! Even though the book stepped over the credibility line once too often, and too far, your enthusiasm shines through- sadly I don’t think it’s one for me but hopefully someone will help you out 😊

    • I was going to say this would be a great one to start with, but actually any of the three I’ve read would be just as great. It’s only taken those three to put him firmly in my list of favourite authors…

  6. There’s been lots of talk of black and white smoke at my college. We’re in the middle of renewing our accreditation and have to wait to see what the Higher Learning Commission says. Everyone is eager, so I guess that means Pope jokes are in order!

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