REVIEW: Conclave by Robert Harris

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4.75/5 stars

For some reason, despite seeing Conclave on the “Bestselling” shelf just about every time I went to a bookstore, I waited until a few days ago to pick up a copy. Now? I’ve been converted. Robert Harris is a master of the historical thriller. Yes, Conclave isn’t a work of historical fiction à la Harris’s The Cicero Trilogy or his upcoming Munich, but it’s much like one of the central conflicts within the book: As the traditionalists and progressives of the Catholic Church clash in the election for a new Pope, Conclave synthesises the past and the present.

In doing so, it raises a series of questions very much faithful to a dilemma faced by the religious leaders of today: How is religion to be kept relevant in the modern age of reason? And must the church adapt to accommodate its followers, or seek to bend society in its image? These ideas run through the central plot of Conclave, in which the eponymous election is no mere contest of personality for a new leader, but a referendum on the direction in which the Catholic Church wishes to proceed: The way of the traditionalists who denounce change as the work of the devil, led by the fiery Tedesco, or the way of the liberals, led by the intellectual Bellini. The machinations of these factions, intertwined with those of the ultra-conservative Nigerian Adeyemi and the cunning French Canadian Tremblay, would make for an entertaining, stimulating read all by themselves.

Even so, at the end of the day, such a book would be essentially a soap opera with a Vatican spin. A solidly four-star read, but the politicking isn’t what gives Conclave its fifth star. No, what elevates this novel to five stars above other stories of plotting and secrets is the heart brought solely by its protagonist, Jacopo Lomeli. Making Lomeli the sole third person limited narrator paid off masterfully. By putting us with him every step of the way, we gain a powerful insight into the psyche of one character that, because of his worldly acuteness and vital role in interacting with the supporting cast, helps us understand the other characters better than we would if the POV constantly rotated.

When I picked up Conclave, I expected a scheming, at best antiheroic protagonist. Lomeli was so much better precisely because he isn’t that kind of character. Neither overly cynical nor idealistic, he is a man thrust into circumstances for which he feels unprepared, caught between his knowledge of the nature of man and his genuine faith in the goodness of God, simply trying to do the right thing. And for this, he is impressively sympathetic.

I don’t need to say much on Harris’s suspenseful plotting or trademark detail from a wealth of research. Without spoiling anything, the ending is remarkably poetic–I was completely blown away by how the outcome of the Conclave was different from what I’d spent most of the novel predicting yet still so consistent with the themes explored throughout. I also like how Harris takes procedures that are archaic and niche and narrates them in such a way that they are both relatable and interesting, without compromising their authenticity much.

Conclave is a novel I would recommend to anyone, but I suspect it holds a special significance for the religious, especially Catholics or Christians, who in real life face the very questions explored in this work of fiction.

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