Conclave by Robert Harris

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Conclave by Robert Harris

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Stacey Barkley
Reviewed by Stacey Barkley
Summary: An absolute showdown as the high and mighty descend into faction and power play.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 400 Date: April 2017
Publisher: Arrow
ISBN: 978-1784751838

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It is hard to believe that Harris has managed to bring such pace to the often lengthy and complex process of a conclave, but he has wrung out every piece of mystery and the result had me reading through long into the night. I simply could not put this down.

It's a simple plot; the Pope has died and the cardinals of the Catholic Church gather from across the globe to elect a successor. It's also a simple formula. They have the first ballot - it's inconclusive. They have a second ballot – it's also inconclusive. And so on and so forth until a victor has been chosen. This has much room to be horrifically repetitive and dull, but with every successive ballot the drama heightens and Harris somehow manages to maintain a pace and propel the story on.

For me the topic itself was enough to rouse interest; a secret process shrouded in mystery. On this Harris does not disappoint for the depth of his research is evident. Sprinkled throughout are factual snippets from conclaves past; scandal, politics, power play, and even, unfortunately, one papal body not correctly embalmed. Harris deploys these facts with skill, never too heavy, but just enough to bring an air of reality to the story and to a process so far removed from everyday understanding.

His protagonist, Cardinal Lomeli, is charged with presiding over the running of the conclave. From the very moment he arrives at the death bed of the late Pope, tension and suspicion are rife. From then on, the actions of the three front-runners, Cardinal Tremblay, Cardinal Tedesco and Cardinal Adeyemi are in sharp focus. They come to highlight the political factions that rumble amid the contest, most notably amid the traditionalists and the liberals. This again carries the weight of realism and of present times; how indeed can one church offer something to every member of so varied a people?

The success of this story lies in Harris having taken a group of elevated social standing - highly regarded for their discipline and ethics - and opened up a secret process which uncovers their descent into faction, corruption, and deceit as crowd mentality propels them to campaign and strategise their way into those Papal shoes. With every re-ballot the group appears to descend ever further from any unified choice or belief, and the more time spent amid the sealed Conclave, the more Lomeli finds himself having to delve into the personal affairs of all involved. And did I mention there is a newcomer in the camp? Thrilling just about sums it up.

This is a really enjoyable read, but one with depth; skim beneath the surface and you cannot help but think about how incredibly the world has changed and how the church too cannot escape twenty-first century issues of terrorism and instant media. A conclave on these terms is no easy feat.

Ultimately Harris saves the biggest twist until last – I changed my mind several times in the course of reading, but was still shocked at the final revelation. Tense with speculation, it is, in short, an absolute showdown.

Robert Harris is no stranger to writing about those in the echelons of power. His 2011 book The Fear Index is an equally compelling read.

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