I was undecided about whether or not to read Robert Harris’ CONCLAVE but a recommendation from a blogger I trust pushed me over the line. Though I’ve liked his historical books I’m not a huge fan of Harris’ contemporary novels (check out my thoughts on THE GHOST and THE FEAR INDEX to see why) but before I was old enough to make my own choices much of my life revolved around my family’s Catholicism. I assume it is for that reason that, though I abandoned even the pretence (for my mother’s sake) of belief a couple of decades ago, I am still drawn inexorably to stories involving religion in general and the Catholic Church in particular.
Although I seem to be in the minority I can’t quite see CONCLAVE as a thriller. For the bulk of the novel there are hints of vaguely nefarious goings-on but they are not front and centre and aside from the one revealed during the novel’s preposterous ending the characters’ secrets are a lot milder than what most modern readers would imagine when thinking “Catholic Church”. Towards the end there’s a bit of excitement (before the laughter generated by the truly ridiculous final reveal) but still I didn’t find the book thrilling. To me it is a somewhat contemplative study of an event – the election of a new Pope – and all the minutiae that make up a thing normally shrouded in secrecy. If you approach this novel expecting page-turning thrills you might be disappointed. If on the other hand you like the idea of delving deeply into an event that is at once political and spiritual then you’ll probably get something out of it. Though it’s worth noting here that the book is pretty middle-of-the-road as far as the views it expresses of the Church as an institution. References are made to recent sex abuse scandals and the Church’s failure to adequately address these and there is a hint of the ever-present struggle between the conservative and progressive theological camps but the book is far from a polemic. The result is that if you’re still a believer you’ll probably be OK with how far the book goes (don’t let the ending throw you, it’s preposterous and not to be taken remotely seriously) but those who have been directly affected by the Church’s failings or who otherwise take a more extreme standpoint may struggle with how lightly the Church itself gets off. I think it’s perfectly fair of the book not to be a rant but I know people who would feel let down by this.
For me the best part of the novel is its narrative voice. Our view of the events – the bulk of which take place over a three exhausting days – is via Cardinal Lomeli. He is 70ish and struggling with aspects of his faith but determined to fulfil his duties as Dean of the College of Cardinals in overseeing the election of the new Pope. Harris has done a good job bringing Lomeli to life, giving him the sorts of foibles, dreams and exasperations that any of us might experience and making him very human and relatable. This is a darned good achievement given that most of us probably can’t actually relate to the sort of life a politically powerful Catholic priest might live. And even if you think the idea of 118 men, the majority of them old and white, choosing one of them to be the leader of a heavily tarnished institution is nothing but irrelevant and amateur dramatics, Harris – through Lomeli – does a bang-up job of drawing the reader into a world of compelling secrets.
The rest of the novel was less successful for me. As in THE FEAR INDEX Harris once again displays an inability to hide his extensive research, literally filling the book with esoteric details, many of them repeated several times over. It didn’t bother me as much this time around but only because (a) I was expecting it based on my previous experience with his writing and (b) I already knew a lot of the details and was able to let them wash over me in a way that wasn’t possible with the arithmetical nuances of hedge fund management and cannibalism that clogged up THE FEAR INDEX. I’m sure the nuns would be thrilled at just how much of the nonsense they taught me was tucked away in my memory banks.
Ultimately though it was what the book wasn’t that bothered me most of all. Every now and again I thought Harris was going to seriously explore the intellectual and theological arguments facing this centuries-old institution but he only ever scratched the surface. I think I’d have preferred it if he hadn’t teased me. And the political shenanigans weren’t nearly as remarkable as the blurb had me believe they would be. To me the book felt too safe; as if its angles and contentiousness had been stripped out by a committee. I suspect the final product is something even the Church itself would struggle to oppose (they’d probably dislike the ending but it is so utterly stupid and implausible that they’d more likely laugh than sue).
I listened to the audio version of CONCLAVE which is superbly delivered by English actor and award-winning audiobook narrator Roy McMillan and think this is probably what made me feel more benign about the book than I otherwise might have done. It is a truly wonderful performance and highly recommended for fans of this format. Without this element the book would be, for me, a lightly enjoyable read that didn’t quite live up to its premise or promise but in the audio format it’s actually quite a treat.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Narrator Roy McMillan
Publisher Random House Audio 
Length 8 hours 19 minutes
Format audio (mp3)
Book Series standalone