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Review: The Second Sleep, by Robert Harris
Knopf, 2019. 298 pp. $27

In 1468, the bishop of Exeter sends a young priest, Father Christopher Fairfax, to a remote village to bury a parson who has just died in an accident. But when Father Fairfax gets there, he discovers that his late colleague collected antique books that the church and government have condemned as heretical. What’s more, at the funeral, a stranger interrupts the service to declare that the deceased’s death was no accident, nor did it result from witchcraft, as some have said — the accident site is thought to be haunted. To no surprise, more startling facts come Christopher’s way, and what he thought was a trip to perform a sacrament turns into something not at all routine, likely dangerous or compromising.

Shield of the See of Exeter, established in the tenth century (courtesy Hogweard, via Wikimedia Commons)

In The Second Sleep, then, do we have a murder mystery with a Gothic overlay? Is this another example of a trope, Killed by an Ancient Manuscript? Or, maybe, to play the book publicists’ game, this novel is The Name of the Rose meets Middlemarch.

None of the above. We’ve got a splendid, thought-provoking, unusual thriller, by a master on top of his game. I thought Harris slipped some with Munich, but The Second Sleep evokes the quality of Dictator and An Officer and a Spy. As with those novels, here, the pages gently exhale history like a subtle, authoritative scent, “no — and furthermores” pile up effortlessly, and the protagonist undergoes an arduous journey, changing in a way he couldn’t have predicted.

But there’s more, because Harris has bent to the genre to his will. As the narrative gradually makes clear, there’s something odd, not to say out of character, about this fifteenth-century English village. And as you continue to puzzle how this can be — for the details are too precise to be accidental, and Harris is a careful storyteller — you and Father Fairfax have something in common. You’re both due for a significant surprise.

However, as I said, this is a subtle, gradual reveal. Consider this paragraph from the fourth page, one that displays Harris’s fine prose as well as a hint of his intent:

After a while, the road began to ascend a wooded hillside. As it climbed, so it dwindled, until it was little better than a cart track — ridged brown earth covered loosely by stones, shards of soft slate and yellow gravel braided by the running rainwater. From the steep banks on either side rose the scent of wild herbs — lungwort, lemon balm, mustard garlic — while the overhanging branches drooped so low he had to duck and fend them off with his arm, dislodging further showers of fresh cold water that drenched his head and trickled down his sleeve. Something shrieked and flashed emerald in the gloom, and his heart seemed to jump halfway up his throat, even though he realised almost at once that it was nothing more sinister than a parakeet.

Parakeets? How’s that?

In finely wrought coherence of story and character, The Second Sleep takes on themes regarding knowledge, faith, reason, church and state, and human frailty. There’s even a touch of coming-of-age, for, like the best of Harris’s protagonists, Christopher faces severe challenges to his beliefs, character, and principles, and the narrative pushes the envelope at his expense. But the author neither lectures nor spells out anything unless he has to, which leaves room for the reader to think and feel — what a novel should do.

I’d say more about this fine book, but I fear giving too much away. Don’t read the blurbs on the back, though for once, the flap copy is safe. The Second Sleep will both entertain you and make you think.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.