The Second Sleep by Robert Harris

History through heresy…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It’s 1468, and young priest Christopher Fairfax is hurrying to reach the village of Addicott St George before curfew. He has been sent by his bishop to officiate at the funeral of the village’s priest, Father Lacy, who has died in a fall from the local landmark known as the Devil’s Chair. But once installed at the rectory, Christopher discovers that Father Lacy had been a collector of antiquities, some of them prohibited by the Church, and he soon has reason to wonder if there may be something more sinister behind the old priest’s death…

But… that isn’t really what the book’s about. And I can’t tell you properly what it is about, since that would spoil it! Makes writing a review kinda tricky. Suffice it to say, there’s a layer of depth that takes this beyond being a standard historical fiction novel. There are elements of apocalypse and dystopia, though I wouldn’t label the book as falling strictly into those categories either. It has as much to say about the present as the past, although we never visit the present. Are you intrigued? You should be!

Christopher has spent his young life in the Church, sent there as a boy to train in the priesthood. This is his first real venture into the world beyond the limits of the cathedral town he calls home, and he soon finds that the world outside has temptations, not simply of the body but of the mind. Heresy, he finds, is a slippery slope – somehow the forbidden exerts a pull on his mind, and the more he discovers, the more he begins to question all that he has been taught. Are the strict rules the Church forces on the population designed to save their souls, or simply to give the Church a stranglehold on power? At the same time, he is beginning to question his personal vocation – his faith is not in question, but as he becomes open to new thoughts and feelings, he wonders if he is able to go on preaching a religion he is beginning to question.

And he’s not alone in his questioning. Others have dabbled in what the Church calls heresy, although the punishments are brutal. Some tread a fine line, trying to disguise their research into the forbidden areas of the past as anti-heretical warnings. Church and state are inextricably linked, and those who fall out of favour with one must suffer the penalties imposed by the other.

As always, Robert Harris has the ability to create settings which have the feel of total authenticity. Here, there’s an added layer of subtlety as we discover that it’s all not quite as straightforward as it first appears, and he handles the ambiguity wonderfully. If there’s a flaw in his more recent books, it’s that his plotting takes second place to his portrayal of a place or time or event. In Conclave, it’s all about the inner workings of the Vatican and how popes are elected, and the actual plot is the only weak point; in Munich, the plot exists merely as a vehicle to allow us to be a fly on the wall at the Munich Conference of 1938. In this one, the plot revolves around Father Lacy’s death and Christopher’s growing interest in the beliefs of the heretics, but again it’s simply a device for Harris to show us this society from different angles – to let us see how and why it has developed as it has. For some people, I know this is a real weakness, and usually it would be for me too. But I find Harris’ scene-setting and the subjects he chooses so fascinating that I never feel the lack of a strong plot. Sometimes, as in Munich or An Officer and a Spy, he casts so much insight into a point in history that it’s enough for me. Other times, as in this one or, say, Fatherland, he uses a slightly off-kilter look at history to make us see it with fresh eyes – not so much as it was, but rather as how only very slight alterations may have made it work out differently – and I find those wonderfully thought-provoking.

Robert Harris

I also find his writing so smooth and effortless-seeming that the actual act of reading is pure pleasure. I find him a very visual writer – he doesn’t go off into extravagantly poetic descriptions, but nevertheless I always end up feeling that I know the places and societies he’s shown me as well as if I’d visited them. And even when he’s making a “point”, he never beats us over the head with it – he respects his readers to think it through for themselves.

As you’ll have gathered, I loved this one – another rung on the ladder that is rapidly helping him climb to the very top of my favourite author heap. I do hope my vague review has intrigued you enough to tempt you to read this one…

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

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38 thoughts on “The Second Sleep by Robert Harris

  1. Oh, this does sound fascinating, FictionFan! It sounds as though it’s got some solid depths and layers to it, which is always appealing. And the whole question of what you do when you start questioning everything you were taught to believe is intriguing. Add to that Harris’ skill at evoking time and place, and I can see why you liked this so well.

    • I thought he handled the whole doubt thing very well – not so much a question of losing faith in God but questioning the way the Church operated. He really is great at putting the reader into his setting, even when his setting isn’t quite what you’re expecting when you start out… 😀

    • That was the first book of his I read and I thought it was brilliant! Since then I’ve read and loved all his later books and am slowly trying to work my way through his back catalogue. You have a lot of excellent reads ahead… 🙂

  2. This does sound good. I’ve only read one of his before now and I’m afraid was rather bored (shh!) and so have had Munich sitting around me for quite some time, may be I should give him another go. . .

    • Ooh, now I’m intrigued! The only one I’ve read so far that didn’t do much for me was Cicero, and I suspect that’s because I always find ancient Rome a bit dull. But otherwise I’ve loved all of them – Munich is great, though again the plot is quite slight. But he really does make you feel as if you were in the room at the Conference with Hitler and Chamberlain… 😀

  3. You’ve succeeded in intriguing me, FF. Your review makes this sound like a fascinating study into a time and place I don’t know much about. Yeah, another five-star review to kick off a new week — and I’ve never read Harris before either.

    • I’m loving Harris more and more with each book – it’s his style of writing as much as his stories, I think. I find his books hard to put down, even though I’m always sad to get to the end. Happily, there’s still a few in his back catalogue I haven’t managed to read yet… 😀

  4. You’ve certainly intrigued me. Having loved his Cicero trilogy and his novel about Pompeii, I really must read some of his more “modern” works!

    • I’m the other way round – I’ve read all his recent books but have still got a few on his back catalogue to catch up on, including two of the Cicero books and Pompeii! He’s such a great writer – he really puts the reader right into his settings, I think… 😀

    • Yes, it was seeing a couple of negative reviews that made me think about why I don’t mind about the relatively weak plot. But I love his writing and the way he brings his settings to life so much that I seem to be able to overlook things that might bother me with other authors. If you do read it, I hope you end up on my side… 😉

    • None at all – the whole book takes place in 1468! There – isn’t that even more intriguing? 😉 Seriously, it’s a very straightforwardly told story – just not quite the story you start out expecting… 😀

  5. That was a great and very secretive review! I normally enjoy a historical setting, but 1468 wouldn’t be my first choice. For some reason, I find it difficult to relate to history that far back (yes, I am ‘time abstractionally’ challenged…). At some point, I need to read a Robert Harris, but perhaps I will start with one taking place in more recent time.

    • Thank you! Ha – I wish I could reveal more without spoilers because although this is set in 1468 it’s not at all what you’d expect of a book with that setting! But his more recent ones are great too – maybe Enigma? It’s set among the code-breakers at Bletchley Park in WW2…

  6. Bother! – That’s definitely one for the TBR. The combination of an historical setting, this author’s smooth writing style & a good review are irresistible.

  7. “As you’ll have gathered, I loved this one – another rung on the ladder that is rapidly helping him climb to the very top of my favourite author heap.” Wow! High praise indeed! You have piqued my interest!

  8. It’s interesting how religion seems to play a part in so many of Robert Harris’s books. Do you know what his own personal thoughts are on religion? He seems to portray a pretty balanced picture of the church, but he also wants us to question it, it seems like.

    • That’s true of his recent books but not so much of his earlier ones (of those I’ve read anyway). I wonder if he’s become more interested in religion recently – I don’t really know anything about his real life. But again in this one it was definitely the specific religion he was questioning rather than faith in general. Intriguing…

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