Adventures in Bookland: Conclave by Robert Harris

Once, when visiting Rome, my friend and I determined to get up early, really early, to get to St Peter’s as soon as it opened in the morning – at 6am if memory serves. Walking across the square on a crisp Roman morning, our shadows stretching before us and the rising sun at our backs, we arrived just as the doors were opened, and we entered into great silence. But then, through that silence, walking as softly as a dream through the vast and, at that hour, empty interior of the basilica, came a column of cardinals, vested in red and white. They went in silent procession across the nave and disappeared through a distant door and we watched as these princes of the church passed us by.

It was a memorable moment. This book doesn’t really match that, unfortunately. It’s a well-told story, that fulfilled the first and most important requirement of any story: I always wanted to know what would happen on the next page. But as a thriller, it didn’t really thrill. As the title suggests, the story is about the meeting to elect a pope following the death of the previous holder of the keys of St Peter, and almost all the action takes place during the conclave. However, the scandals that bring down a succession of papabile before they can gather enough votes to be elected pope are so obvious as to be totally predictable, while it’s absolutely clear just who will finally end up as pope. Harris must have been aware of this, as he throws in a final twist after the obvious – to the reader if not the cardinals – candidate is elected. However, the twist is really rather risible.

This is not to say the book is bad; it’s not. It just could fairly easily have been better. The characters are interesting and Harris makes some attempt at rounded characterisations even for a papabile whose doctrinal positions he evidently disagrees with. But it’s all just too predictable.


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