Monday 23 September 2019

The Second Sleep by Robert Harris: Things are not what they seem in a dark medieval mystery

Fiction: The Second Sleep

Robert Harris

Hutchinson, €15.99

Robert Harris is brilliant at creating unease in his novels
Robert Harris is brilliant at creating unease in his novels

Eilis O'Hanlon

It's difficult to talk about the new novel by Robert Harris without giving away one major spoiler; but it would be unfair to readers to do so, since part of the pleasure of the book lies in the slow realisation of what's going on, before sitting back and letting the author unpick all the implications of that early revelation.

Suffice to say that it begins in the year 1468 as a young priest by the name of Christopher Fairfax is despatched to an isolated village in the English countryside to conduct the funeral service for a parson who's just died.

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Father Lacy had spent his entire life in Addicott St George and seemed to be deeply involved in the collection of antique artefacts, some of which are considered heretical by the Church.

Fairfax's intention is to get in and out quickly. Instead, events conspire to keep him in the village for several days, during which time he continues his investigations into the dead parson's activities and his life takes some unpredictable turns, forcing him to ask whether Lacy was murdered, and what connection he had to the stranger who interrupts the funeral to tell mourners to "wake up to the truth"?

Harris is brilliant at creating unease as certain historical incongruities bubble to the surface.

My initial thought was that it must be set in some alternate history. After all, Harris's first novel, Fatherland, famously imagined a world in which Hitler won World War II.

The truth is actually much stranger, but again it would be disappointing to reveal more, even if some of the pre-publicity has, bafflingly, given the game away.

It's possible to find elements of many other stories scattered through these pages, from Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale to Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. There are even traces of The Wicker Man in its rural Gothic tale of an earnest, initially priggish man plunged into an older, darker milieu that he doesn't understand and which seems determined to thwart his efforts at understanding.

Fairfax is the classic innocent abroad, who early on finds himself shamefully naked and forced to don the dead priest's clothes, in a symbolic erasement of self. It would be cruel not to be on his side as he tries his best in the face of superstition and suspicion. Harris conveys the grinding dirt and squalor of that half-cursed, rain-soaked village with pungent authenticity.

Once one knows what's going on, it's possible to criticise its plausibility. Would, or could, what this book records as having taken place really have happened so completely? It's a stretch, let's put it that way. By the end, it's even possible to see The Second Sleep as an extreme satire of post-Brexit Britain, with the tattered flag of St George flapping weakly above the poor, squalid villagers below.

The ending manages to be simultaneously melodramatic and anti-climactic, but what's refreshing is Robert Harris's refusal to be bound by the conventions of the thriller genre in which he's been quarantined. His settings have ranged from modern Russia to 19th Century France and ancient Rome.

That ambition is hugely admirable at a time when publishing would rather its star names keep churning out more of the same.

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