Books

Robert Harris
The Second Sleep

Robert Harris is arguably the classiest trashmeister alive, unless we include le Carré, or Thomas Harris on the long-ago basis of the first two Lecter books. But it’s Robert Harris who gave us Fatherland, with its central conceit of the Nazi nightmare continuing; who succeeded in the almost impossible task of turning the Dreyfus affair into a twisting and turning mystery novel in An Officer and a Spy; and who activated contemporary history with the saga of a Tony Blair-like prime minister in The Ghost. Harris also enamoured himself forever to that band of sword-and-sandal devotees – those enthusiasts of I, Claudius and Rome – who couldn’t believe their luck when he made Cicero, with all his soaring rhetoric and moral gravity, the hero of a series of detective stories.

History, one suspects, looms large for Harris’s fans, both in its costume-drama glamour and in his flattery of his readers’ knowledge of the past. His command of narrative momentum and factual detail is analogous to the nonfiction maestros such as Antony Beevor, who gave Stalingrad and D-Day just a bit of the panoramic sweep of War and Peace.

History, as T. S. Eliot said, may be servitude, history may be freedom; so when you pick up The Second Sleep and see its cover with a cowled figure, silhouetted on horseback by a Gothic church as night falls, and then open the book to discover that everything is set in 1468, you wonder if this novel is an open invitation to swash and buckle at its toshiest.

Hold on, however. It is not a spoiler but the basic datum of The Second Sleep is that this 1468 is 800 years in the future. Some time about now, in the 2020s, civilisation collapsed – whether through climate change or computer failure, who knows.

The world of the new dispensation thinks that the time of the apocalypse came with its nightmare of the beast whose number is 666, and this was followed by the era of the risen Christ. Britain now lives in a pre-industrial state, dominated by the church, and it is heresy to indulge in any “antiquarian” interests that might reveal any information about a time when people could fly through the sky and zoom down roads in high-powered carriages.

And so it is that a young priest arrives in this part of Wessex – Hardy country, though only the epigraph knows this. The former parson has died in a way that gradually proves to be mysterious and seems not unrelated to the heresy of uncovering a past full of glass and electricity and the magic of high finance and technology.

The young priest soon becomes involved with the lady of the nearest – and more or less ruined – manor, and with the bluff hearty captain who’s going to marry her. Meanwhile, as housekeepers weep with what might be a partner’s grief for the dead vicar, the susurration of murder gets louder and darker, and there is the entrance into the book of “antiquarians”, scholars who have – literally, on their foreheads – been branded as heretics.

Through all this, there is the crypto-mythology of two varieties of sleep – one before midnight and the other after. Harris intimates that these were distinguished in earlier times, and part of the logic of the second sleep is to suggest that beneath the world of traditional familiarities lurks a world of dark spectral intensities.

Then again, these spectres, in another sense, dominate the foreground. This is a world that takes its bearings not from science or materialism, or whatever it is that constitutes our mythology – and Harris makes you wonder – but from a literal application of the most tripped-out and apparitional coda to the Christian Bible, the world of the four horsemen and the beast marked with those three sixes, of the lakes of burning fire and the end-times intimation of God knows what.

Robert Harris has a super-bright, quasi-lunatic idea on his hands and he finds it irresistible. One inevitable difficulty is that his post-apocalyptic future – which resembles our nightmare fears of an alternative world that didn’t progress by leaps and bounds with modern science and technology – has the atmosphere of a book set in the pre-industrial early 19th century. People say “ye” a lot and the Wessex setting helps this along by way of verisimilitude, but what we hear in the dialogue is modified modern speech – 21st-century speech, if you like. Still, Harris is very nifty in his use of his priestly hero’s command of the Book of Common Prayer, with all its age-old eloquence that connects us – how could it not? – to a world we have half lost.

One upshot of this is that The Second Sleep, which is such a dashing entrance into counterfactual historicism, tends to have a rather ramshackle plot. It reads – to a greater extent than is usual with Harris – a bit like an adventure story, a ripping yarn with wonderful and mysterious elements rather than a fully coherent thriller. My hunch is that this will in no way worry the diehard fans, who will be delighted to have this sumptuous and swish concoction, though it may not win readers from the ranks of the unbelievers as his very best work does.

In The Second Sleep Robert Harris has the difficulty of inhabiting a past he is improvising into being by the second and, by necessity, doing so in terms of the present. Wasn’t it Odgen Nash who said, “The trouble with the present is that the future’s not what it used to be”?

You can gasp at the cleverness with which Harris invests a future that is grounded in a fallen and unseeing sense of the past, and still recognise that this is a bit of high-class trash fiction. The Second Sleep manipulates a vision of today’s language and habits, one that’s at home with the nearest yesterday we can find – the early 19th-century world of beautiful ladies and bonnets and handsome clerics itching to get their gear off.

Peter Craven

Hutchinson, 336pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 19, 2019 as "Robert Harris, The Second Sleep". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: Peter Craven