The Second Sleep by Robert Harris
It is the Year of Our Risen Lord 1468 and priest Christopher Fairfax has arrived in the village of Addicott St George. Fairfax has been sent by the Bishop of Exeter to lay the local vicar, Thomas Lacy, to rest. Arriving at the parsonage, and after meeting the now-departed Lacy, Fairfax settles down for the night in the vicar’s study. As he looks around, Fairfax sees objects collected by the late Father Lacy. His eye is drawn to a shiny rectangular object on the shelves. Fairfax looks intently at the heretical object, in a condition he has never seen before. He turns the object over to see “the ultimate symbol of the ancients’ hubris and blasphemy - an apple with a bite taken out of it.”
So begins Robert Harris’ 13th novel, The Second Sleep. The setup is a classic folk-horror one, an outsider in a closed environment and who then drift further down the rabbit hole. The setting is a possible future rooted in the distant past. One of the quotes that Harris’ uses to open the novel is from Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge where Hardy states the fields and gardens of Dorset couldn’t be dug in without “coming upon some tall soldier or other of the Empire, who had lain there in his silent unobtrusive rest for a space of fifteen-hundred years.” With this in mind, we quickly learn that Lacy’s fascination with the “Ancients” was deeper than stumbling across an iPhone. His free time was sent digging and looking for all the fragments he could in the area around Addicott. Much like the land beneath Hardy’s fictional Casterbridge, Addicott seems to have risen above the detritus of our fallen world.
Fairfax is trapped in the town by a washed-out road and the longer he stays, the deeper he is drawn into the mysteries of Addicott St George. From Lacy’s housekeeper and her niece, Rose, the tale mainly centres around the trinity of Fairfax, Lady Sarah Dunston, the local dignitary fallen upon hard times and the local mill-owner, Captain John Hancock. Through these three, and the conflicting ambitions of each of them, the tale unfolds and leads back to the site of Lacy’s death, The Devils Chair.
Harris’ recent novels have all worked this device of putting a group with conflicting ideals and desires into a reasonably confined spaced and then stirring the pot. In Conclave it was the Vatican during the selection of a new Pope. In Munich (my review here), it was the September 1938 Munich peace conference that averted war for a year. In each of these, the politics and motives of the characters are laid bare. We see this through the eyes of an ‘innocent’ character such as Cardinal Lomeli or Hugh Legat. In The Second Sleep, Fairfax is an ambitious young priest who gets caught up in the very real world of a small town he cannot escape with bigger forces bearing down upon him. The crux of all of these three novels really comes down to the question of “what is truth?” and who decides what that truth is.
Given our rather robust political ‘discussions’ at the moment and Harris’ own vocal views, this direction in his recent novels is only to be understood. Harris is a very skilled writer and The Second Sleep unfolds as well as any of his recent works. Reading between the lines you can see the discussion Harris is having but the tale is such that you are never throttled by it. The controlling of “The Truth” and how it is used is teased out by those with the power to control it at the end of the novel and that ending is abrupt.
The Second Sleep is a look at the direction we are taking. We have set ourselves up for a fall and Harris looks at this through a lens of the stunted hindsight of our great-great-great-grandchildren. While there are a couple of loose threads in the narrative and the ending rather abrupt, the world Harris has created in Addicott St George is vibrant and the discussion important. The Second Sleep is vintage Harris and his reminder that the party line is not always gospel is one we should always heed within the echo chambers we create for ourselves.
The Second Sleep is published by Hutchinson (who kindly proved this review copy) and is released on the 5th September 2019.