“All civilisations consider themselves invulnerable; history warns us that none is.”
I am a massive Robert Harris fan. Having enjoyed the Cicero trilogy, Munich, Fatherland, the Officer and the Spy and most recently Conclave. Second Sleep it is a return to the church vs science battle as an intriguing mystery develops in the post-apocalyptic British countryside.
The 400 or so page reinforce Harris’ reputation as the master of the page-turning thriller. The landscape created reminds me a good deal of GMB’s His Bloody Project. Our protagonist here is Christopher Fairfax. He is thrust into village life against his wishes and spends the early chapters trying to extricate himself. There is a strong sense of inevitability as if the gods themselves have conspired to make him see the mystery through to its conclusion. (Bishop Pole the orchestrator of this trip remains noticeably absent until the denouement.
In my view four main characters are fully developed. Captain John Handcock (perhaps named after the signature or the prominent American merchant). Is a man of considerable size and considerable means. Initially cast as the villain of the piece he forms an unlikely alliance with Fairfax.
It is Fairfax through which we explore the village of Addicott St George as he grapples with his role a man of the cloth set against his uncertain future. He is still young enough to make the change and avoid the fate of father Lacy whose death haunts the novel. We feel an immediate empathy with Fairfax. Many of us have been sent on lonely missions often completing routine and rather dull tasks.
As he is dragged further into the mire so too is the reader. We witness his internal battle between universal desires- his fondness for the maid Rose and later in his pursuit of Lady Durston (Sarah). It is the latter who becomes the main love interest as she seeks to re-establish the faded glory of her tumbled down manor. I’d say she is one of the weaker characters- we never really get a full sense of her motives. Who knows this may have been due to publisher page constraints?
The supporting cast brings depth to the narrative, Keefer the bothersome clerk brings reminders of church bureaucracy. Miss Hancock -John’s sister who learns of Fairfax’s dalliance with Sarah- and later threatens the young father. The silent maid Rose is something of a red herring I felt she was going to be more of a central feature instead her thread is cut short and tied up quickly in the latter third.
The grass grows. The sheep feed. The Looms spin. This is Harris at his finest conjuring a vivid landscape which the reader is eager to explore. Some would say more eager than our reluctant hero Fairfax. It is he who follows the archetypal journey. He leaves behind the ordinary by responding to call to action where he is posted to the remote village way out in the boonies. He soon meets a mentor, perhaps three- Hancock, Sarah (Lady Durston) and Shadwell the Howard Carter of the piece all lead him deeper into the mystery. He meets with a test of faith- will he leave the world of god and instead embrace the scientific method.
Church vs Science. Harris leaves the church towers standing firm across the country while the trappings of modern life- heated car windscreens, iPhones and iPads decay. Our unlikely team of archaeologists led by Hancock is baffled by these relics. Leaving the reader to ponder- what will our current society be remembered for in the centuries ahead?
Death. Lacy’s funeral haunts the early chapters- do we fully understand if his death was a tragic accident or cold-blooded murder? Shadwell appears close to death throughout often heard to be hacking bloody catarrh into a tissue.
Where the book really excells is its description of scenery. We can smell the woodsmoke emanating from the millers’ cottages, feel the pickaxes striking the damp cold earth, and hear the looms humming throughout the village. Second Sleep in the ideal novel to settle into a comfortable chair next to the fire as the cool autumn nights lengthen.
Next up- V2 which is released later this month.