The Second Sleep by Robert Harris

Robert Harris has become a favourite author of mine in recent years; I loved An Officer and a Spy, the Cicero trilogy and Conclave, and so far only Archangel has disappointed me. When I received a copy of his new novel, The Second Sleep, a few weeks ago, I was so excited about reading it that I dropped several other books I was in the middle of so I could start it immediately. But would it live up to my high expectations?

The first thing to say is that, if I had started to read this book without knowing the author’s name, I would probably never have guessed it was by Robert Harris as it’s so different from all of the others I’ve read! Whether or not you think that’s a good thing or a bad thing will depend on whether you prefer to know what to expect from an author or whether you like a lot of diversity. Personally I found this a bit too different and it took me quite a long time to settle into the story. Once I did, I started to enjoy it, but I can’t say that this has become a favourite by Harris.

At first The Second Sleep appears to be a conventional historical mystery. We are told that the year is 1468 and we are introduced to a young priest, Christopher Fairfax, who has just arrived in a small, remote village in the south-west of England to conduct the funeral of parish priest Father Lacy. Fairfax expects to return to Exeter Cathedral within a day or two, but when he discovers that there may have been suspicious circumstances surrounding the death of Father Lacy, he ends up staying in the village for much longer than planned. It seems that the old priest had been putting together a collection of forbidden books and artefacts and it was this which may have led to his death.

And that’s really all I can tell you about the plot. After a few chapters it becomes obvious that there is nothing conventional at all about this story, so I would hate to give too much away and spoil things for other readers. All I will say is that the central idea on which the novel is based is both fascinating and frightening, as well as having a lot of relevance to today’s society.

The Second Sleep is a very atmospheric novel and Harris carefully builds a sense of time and place, describing the landscape, the lives of the villagers and the sense of isolation that comes with living in such a remote location. Up in the hills, an unusual construction known as the Devil’s Chair – where Father Lacy fell to his supposedly accidental death – becomes the focus of the strange occurrences taking place in and around the village. It’s a bleak and eerie setting which perfectly suits this unusual and unsettling story.

Although this book never quite reached page-turner status for me, the pace did pick up after a while and the ideas the novel explored were intriguing enough to keep me interested. The story seemed to be building towards something dramatic and I expected more twists and revelations at the end. When the ending came, however, I was left thinking, ‘is that it?’ I wondered if I had missed something, so I read the final chapter again but found it no more satisfying the second time. Looking at other early reviews of this novel (the book is published today here in the UK), most people have loved it, so although I did find a lot to enjoy I’m sorry that I couldn’t quite manage to love it too. I do have both Munich and Pompeii on my shelf, though, and am still looking forward to reading both of those sooner rather than later.

Thanks to the publisher Hutchinson for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

13 thoughts on “The Second Sleep by Robert Harris

  1. Carmen says:

    Too bad this one is that different from the others. It seems it wasn’t necessarily a good thing. I recommend you read Pompeii first; it starts kind of iffy but it picks up relentlessly in the second half and more than makes up for the mediocre first half. It’ll make you feel like you lived there through the volcano eruption.

  2. Café Society says:

    I’ve read widely differing responses to this novel ranging from the condemnatory to the ecstatic. The one thing everyone seems agreed on is that it isn’t typical Harris. I have loved some of his books and had to claw my way through others so I’m not certain what to do about this one. I think the answer will be to wait and see if it turns up in my local library rather than spending hard earned cash on it.

    • Helen says:

      I think you would find this book interesting and relevant, but it does have a very different feel from his other books. Waiting for a library copy is probably a good idea!

  3. whatmeread says:

    His book about the Dreyfus affair is very much more like a mystery than any of the others of his novels that I have read. I thought that one was terrific, so I am looking forward to this one. I think it publishes in the states later, but I have already pre-ordered it.

  4. Elle says:

    I think on the whole it’s very good, and very relevant to where we are right now as a society (to the extent that it made me anxious enough while reading that I wondered if I should give myself a break…), but agree with you that the ending is a bit of a “??” moment. He knows how to make a reader turn a page, though!

    • Helen says:

      I’m glad it wasn’t just me who was disappointed by that ending! I agree that it’s a good book overall, though – and yes, so relevant it’s quite worrying.

  5. FictionFan says:

    I know what you mean about the ending but I loved it anyway. There’s something about the way he writes that always makes me willing to cut him a bit of slack, and I’ve thought a couple of times, including here, that his plots can be a bit flimsy – just a vehicle for him to create a setting around or recreate a moment in history. It’s a hard one to review without spoilers – you’ve done a great job!

    • Helen says:

      That’s how I felt about this one – a great setting and great idea, but the plot could have been a bit stronger. And thanks – it was difficult, but I would have hated to spoil the surprise for other readers!

  6. Judy Krueger says:

    It is a tough thing when an author does something different from what you expect from him/her. If I really admire the author I respect their right to try something else but it can shake one up.

    • Helen says:

      I have loved most of Robert Harris’ books so much, I can overlook the occasional one that doesn’t really work for me. And I still have some of his earlier novels to look forward to!

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