Book Review: Conclave, by Robert Harris

The inner workings of the Catholic church come under the spotlight as Cardinals gather to elect a new Pope, exposing the ambitions & rivalries of the candidates.

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Cardinals from around the world gather to elect a new Pope. What could possibly go wrong?

Robert Harris has written a psychological thriller but it fails to satisfy. I did enjoy the fascinating details and exposition on the history and rituals of the papal conclave, which Harris successfully weaves into the story. Did you know the black simar (cassock) worn by cardinals has 33 red buttons, one for each year of Christ’s life, or that the papal thrones were removed from the Sistine Chapel because they were too gaudy?

The hero of the story is Cardinal Lomeli who works hard to convince himself that he doesn’t want the honour of being Pope but the reader knows he secretly longs to be elected. While the cardinals are deeply religious men, they are also princes of the church and have both ambition and rivals: the striving, ambitious Tremblay from North America; Adeyemi from Africa who holds very traditional views on women in the church; and the unknown Benítez – made a cardinal in pectore, created in secret to protect his identity.

The tension builds as the first, second, and subsequent ballots are counted, each time revealing a new twist or complication. The most likely candidates are each discovered to be hiding something from their past which would likely cost them the election, while the not-so-subtle lobbying exposes the reality of the conclave – a robust battle in the guise of a holy retreat.

I find myself agreeing with John Boyne’s comment that:

…the secrets prove so tame compared with the antics of some of their real-life counterparts that one is left thinking, well I’ve heard worse, and wondering why they’re so mercilessly ejected off the ballot.

If you are a careful reader, the final twist is obvious long before the denouement and is so contrived I found myself wondering if that was the best Harris could do.

Reviewed by: Jan Kershaw

Rating out of 10:  6

Released by: Penguin Random House
Released: September 2016 (ebook), October 2016 (trade paperback & hardcover), May 2017 (paperback)
RRP: $32.99 trade paperback, $45 hardcover, $17.99 ebook, $22.99 paperback

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