Conclave by Robert Harris

A review of the political religious thriller Conclave by Robert Harris.

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Michelangelo / Public Domain

Delving into a novel about the election of a new Pope brings about two fears: either it will be extensively and overly detailed with a complex process that drowns out the plot, leading it to be overwrought and underwhelming; or the procedures will be glossed over and shoehorned with unnecessary action, in an attempt to add tension to what could be a relatively placid tale. In the case of Conclave, neither is true.

Robert Harris has crafted a tense, fast-paced, yet wholly realistic and immersive story. The novel begins with the discovery of the current Pope’s death, which introduces the major contenders to succeed the Papacy. The narrative then immediately skips a few weeks, deftly dodging the funeral, and the story proper commences as the Cardinals arrive for Conclave – the act of deciding a new Pope – in the Vatican; specifically in the wondrous Sistine Chapel.

The narrative is told through the eyes of Lomeli, the Dean who is charged with overseeing and facilitating the election. Told in close third-person, with occasional references to what reporters and commentators discovered and how the public interpretations differ from the facts, the narrator acts almost as a voyeuristic God; observing but not really getting involved. The procedure itself is incredibly well-researched – Harris travelled to the Vatican and spoke to Cardinals who had participated in previous Conclaves before writing the book – yet the exposition is always manageable. Harris skilfully draws the reader into this world of traditions and strict religious morality as other writers do with fantasy or science fiction, gradually world-building as the story progresses. The only instance which felt overwhelming was the arrival and introduction of the 118 Cardinals, which, although felt at times like an unnecessary list, was reflected later in the story as Lomeli consistently forgot who people were or, in some cases, did not recognise them at all. The main players were then the focus from that point onwards.

The tagline given to the book is ‘The Power of God, the Ambition of Men,’ and it suits the story perfectly. This is a political battle of potential candidates wrestling for control of the Holy See; old men who have dedicated their lives to an institution they now have an opportunity to rule. Despite this, the characters all felt three-dimensional and had their own contradictions and flaws. As the story develops, and the voting gets underway, the plot is propelled forward through character choices and the resulting consequences. Even a slight play on Deus ex Machina felt appropriate – this is God we are talking about.

The writing is light and fast-paced, ensuring what could have been a rather inaccessible story becomes compelling and gripping. As the frontrunners and key characters are in play from early in the story it is possible to guess the outcome of the eventual decision, and therefore predict the new Pope, but Harris counteracts this by allowing all the potentials to be both likely candidates and red herrings; the result is obvious in hindsight but, whilst reading, it could be any of them. The way this is written is truly a testament to Harris’ craft.

The paperback copy which I read was also a delight: the pages were edged in red and the cover a matte black, giving it an almost Biblical feel in the hand. The cover declares it a worldwide bestseller, and upon completion it is obvious why. I have been recommending this book to all and sundry since finishing it, after myself reading it on the advice of a friend. The final moments of the story brought such a smile to my face that I am almost insistent that others experience it. Who needs the Da Vinci Code? This is how you write a real thriller.

Originally from Thanet, J A DuMairier enjoys writing and long walks in the country.

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