Robert Harris is unlikely to need much introduction if you read thrillers. With a back catalogue including Fatherland, Enigma and An Officer And A Spy, Harris has long bridged the, at times, gaping void between popular and literary fiction with elegant, taut fiction that is pretty much guaranteed to keep a reader on the edge of his/her seat.
His latest work, The Second Sleep, is not likely to disappoint his already significant following. What may come as more of a surprise is the mixing of genres. Historical fiction or science fiction? An unlikely confusion? Well, normally, yes – but in The Second Sleep that is exactly what Harris achieves. Let me explain.
It is 1468 and a priest, Christopher Fairfax, is travelling by horse to the village of Addicott St George in the south-west of England. He travels through a medieval landscape familiar to us: rough locals mock his accent, the bodies of executed criminals hang from gibbets and the roads are dangerous places at the mercy of footpads. Night is falling and Fairfax loses his way. We fear for his safety.
Fairfax has been sent to this remote village by the bishop of Exeter, Bishop Pole. His task is to preside over the funeral of Addicott’s recently deceased priest, Father Thomas Lacy. Arriving, finally, at the vicarage, Fairfax meets an odd reception. The body of Father Lacy remains in his bedroom and Fairfax must sleep as best he can. As he explores the house, he and the reader make surprising discoveries.
Lest it be thought I am about to give too much away I should say that what follows occurs early in the book. But by all means skip the next few paragraphs if you think a little foreknowledge will spoil your enjoyment!
Among Lacy’s antiquarian treasures is “one of the devices used by the ancients to communicate”. The device is marked with the symbol of an apple with a bite taken out of it.
Clearly then, we are not, despite all the early signs, in medieval England. We are not in anything that we might recognise as 1468. In fact, we are far into the future when our current civilisation is gone, destroyed by we know not what. Our contemporary world has become the forbidden subject of study of a society in which all previous technical and scientific knowledge has been lost.
This is a post apocalyptic world in which the final book of the Bible has been fulfilled. The earth has been purged. Those who have survived live under the rule of the Church which has declared heretical any attempts to unearth information about, or collect artefacts from, the past. And the punishments for heresy are severe.
For Christopher Fairfax, this is a devastating discovery. He has been dispatched on this mission to be in and out of Addicott in a night and day. But he has discovered a nest of heresy, complete with artefacts and banned books. Father Lacy was clearly a seeker of forbidden knowledge. Fairfax, by turns horrified and fascinated, is about to undertake a journey of discovery that he had not bargained for and for which he is ill-equipped.
There is another well-established genre in popular fiction: the adventure story, or, as it has been gently but affectionately mocked, the ripping yarn. And there is definitely something of the ripping yarn about The Second Sleep. For out of this historical fiction beginning and its sci-fi premise, Harris spins a tale of love, lust, power, duplicity, secrecy, coercion and lies. The Second Sleep evolves into a thrilling adventure story played out against a hostile landscape of deluging rains and the ruthless exercise of power.
Does it all work? Well, in lesser hands it might well not. But Harris is an experienced and skilled craftsman. First he teases us gently with his deliberately confusing setting and then he intrigues us with his premise. After that he lets good old-fashioned character and plot take over. And, my goodness, he is good at that. It is some time since I have read a novel where even the minor characters are memorable. So often they disappear murkily into the background. Not here.
But it all hangs, as always, on the protagonists. And Christopher Fairfax’s journey, on which all his beliefs are challenged and his allegiances pulled apart, holds our attention to the end.
I cannot claim that The Second Sleep is Harris’s finest work. But despite its adventure story cloak it does ask deeper questions about the nature of society and how it is governed. And it is a compelling, page-turning read of a book.
Adventure yarn with depth
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