Book Review – Conclave by Robert Harris

A thriller. But not your conventional terrorism, cops and robbers, psychological mayhem style thriller. No, this is a gentle paced, gently building, teasing and prodding tale. The demographic of the gathering conclave gradually revealed as cardinals from around the world arrive in Rome. Charged with the responsibility of electing a new Pope from within their midst, they are removed from the outside world and its potential influence and guided through the process by the protagonist of the tale, Cardinal Lomeli.

Lomeli is a likeable and amiable chap, but his unspoken subtext nudges at your suspicions throughout the rather cleverly red trimmed pages. I do like a touchy feely, quirkily presented tome.

This is no less a thriller for its apparent easy pace. It builds and builds, like Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir, constantly hinting at, then prolonging the wait for, the tensions to be unfurled. The delicate interplay between this collection of men, some fiercely ambitious, some deceptively quiet, others openly self promoting is treated with a tender touch by Harris. I found myself gradually having favourites and trying to guess ahead the colour of the smoke from each ballot result.

As a would-be-author (!) I was taken by the detail, the filling in of backgrounds, the canvas appearing in my head. The research undertaken in order to present such an unusual subject matter with careful and considered attention to the intricacies of the process is awe-inspiring.

For a thriller to contain little in the way of violence, and still be so gripping is testament to the clever delivery of seemingly gentile ugliness of some of the characters behaviour. The story unfolds in chronological order, neatly tying each unsuccessful ballot to the next.

I’ve always said I’m best entertained by songs written by songwriters and sung by singers. The same goes for books. This is definitely written by a writer. I rattled through it and enjoyed the cameo appearance of the ‘twist’ at the end, which I certainly hadn’t seen coming.

I’m not a man of religion and found the catholic rhetoric to be simply part of story, I would be intrigued to know how more committed catholic devotees felt about reading it.

I definitely recommend this.


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