It seems odd to be reviewing another Robert Harris novel, so soon after the last one, but the 99p Rule applies, so here we are.
The Papal Conclave is what happens when all the cardinals of the Roman Catholic church get together in order to elect a new pope. Usually, the previous pope has just died; rarely, he’s resigned due to ill-health, like Ratzinger, who resigned in 2013, on his last legs.
And is still alive.
The secretive nature of the Conclave is what makes it interesting, and generates wild conspiracy theories. Did he resign or was he pushed? We’re all tired to the gills of conspiracy theories in 2021, but Robert Harris wasn’t to know that would happen in 2016 when he wrote this—oh.
Now, I’m not a religionist, and I don’t give a shit who the pope is, but I must say that the behind-closed-doors nature of the election is intriguing. The only thing I was aware of, like most people I suppose, was the smoke thing, and the pilgrims turning up in Rome, and the media obsession. At one point, Harris ruefully points out the betting odds in the UK, which hasn’t had to worry about the pope since Catherine of Aragon.
So if you’d asked me, I’d have said, yeah, the cardinals lock themselves away somewhere, and they all vote, and then they send smoke signals. I’d have never guessed black smoke vs. white smoke, but I might have wondered why they didn’t innovate with different colours. Blue for it’s close; red for deadlock, that kind of thing.
And if you’d asked me, I’d have guessed there were about 13 cardinals, like a witches’ coven.
This is all grist for the Harris mill, as this author likes nothing better than a bit of research into a secretive happening. And as with V2, he inevitably wins you over to his side. He’s paid more attention to what happens than the rest of us, and here is a novel.
So it’s the near future and the (fictional) pope has just died unexpectedly. The Cardinals (117 of them!) descend on Rome for the funeral and the Conclave, and then the fun begins. Traditionalists vs Liberals, financial scandals, sexual impropriety, some new cardinal nobody knew anything about (making 118), and then they go to the Sistine Chapel for the voting, and the shit hits the fan etc. Everybody is supposed to be sequestered from the outside world, protesters are chanting on the streets, and the political manoeuvrings are intense, man. Lots of prayers, lots of rituals, and the tension builds.
It’s a natural thriller, really. Front runners emerge, scandals also, and everybody prays a bit more and votes again.
Our protagonist is Lomeli, the Dean of the cardinals, who is in charge of the conclave, and finds himself having to pay attention to things he’s rather ignore. Like women! Yes, this is one of those narratives our culture manages to create that excludes 50% of the population. Except when it doesn’t.
Anyway, I could see the end coming a mile off, and the twist (bit silly), but this is thoroughly entertaining and – as one reviewer said – unputdownable.