Conclave | Robert Harris | 2016 (22 September 2016) | Hutchinson | 290p | Review copy | Buy the book
The Pope is dead. One hundred and eighteen cardinals gather from across the world to form the Conclave that will elect the next Pope in proceedings steeped in tradition, shrouded in complete secrecy. Millions upon millions of the faithful and the interested watch the chimney above the Sistine Chapel for the tell-tale white smoke that would mean that a decision has been reached. But, before the white smoke can come, there may be days of black smoke – evidence of conflict, inconclusive votes, factions. The proceedings are supposed to be kept entirely hidden from the outside world, all signs of indecision burnt away in fires of black smoke. But what if the truth were revealed? What would it reveal about the nature of the most powerful men in the Catholic Church, about the nature of the Church itself? Would it survive such scrutiny?
In Conclave, Robert Harris achieves a remarkable feat, creating a story that feels remote from the world and from time. The Conclave has been used to elect popes for centuries and once those doors and windows have been sealed and locked shut, the cardinals exist in a timeless place. They might see the nuns who serve them their food or catch glimpses of their security guards but otherwise, apart from their brief journey across the Vatican from their lodgings to the Sistine Chapel, the Cardinals see nobody. They are allowed no windows, no phones, no computers, no newspapers – nothing. The time between votes is supposed to be spent in prayer or in seemly discussion with their colleagues until one candidate has received the required number of votes. And it is within these strict walls that Robert Harris places us.
The novel is set in the near future – we’re told that no actual real figure is represented here – but it feels timeless. Harris captures the claustrophobia of the Conclave, the lack of fresh air and light, the increasing stress and almost hysteria as a conclusive vote eludes the cardinals. And within these confines, covering a period of just a few days, Harris develops a mood of such tension and expectation that I could not bear to put this book down.
Robert Harris manages this tension wonderfully, turning up the pressure valve as we move from vote to vote in a perfectly structured novel. This is a thriller, albeit an unusual and original thriller, and a main reason for its success is the outstanding cast of characters. The vast majority are cardinals but how different they are. There are so many ways in which to worship God. All pray and read from the Bible and yet their vision is not the same. The relationships of the Cardinals to each other, to God and to the Catholic Church are extraordinarily rich and varied even though, as one of their member states ‘We are all good men’, but how easy it is to lose sight of that when the goal for one of them is the Papacy itself.
Our focus is on Cardinal Lomeli, the Dean, whose job it is to manage the Conclave. The pressure on his shoulders is immense, especially as he gets to know a little more about his fellow cardinals and the factions that develop and flourish, hungry for new members. It is his crisis of conscience and faith that we grow closest to as he tries to make the right choice. But there are a host of other characters, on all sides of the divide, that speak with distinct voices, many are charismatic and physically powerful while others are quiet and meek. Others are like stems of grass blowing in the breeze. But the nuns who look after the cardinals should not be forgotten. Their presence as mere servants is a reminder of the fundamental inequalities of the Church.
I was captivated by Conclave. A short novel, it is perfectly paced and constantly intriguing, increasingly thrilling. As you’d expect from Robert Harris, one of the best writers around today and an author whose books I adore, Conclave is a hugely intelligent and thought-provoking novel that takes for its subject something so secretive and blows it open. Our curiosity is more than rewarded. A standout novel of the year for me without doubt.