Conclave – Robert Harris – Audible Book Review by Pat V.
The Catholic Church portrays the election of a new pope as a spiritual, almost mystical, experience where cardinals from all over the world come together in Rome and, inspired by the Holy Spirit, choose the candidate most suitable to sit on the throne of St. Peter. Robert Harris’s description of the same event is quite different. Not that he is in any way irreverent. His latest novel, Conclave, set around a papal election is a tense and dramatic story of intrigue and double dealing. It is, one feels, probably a lot more realistic than the traditional, romanticised version that the Church portrays of the proceedings.
Conclave begins with the unexpected death of the pope and it falls on Cardinal Lomeli, Dean of the College of Cardinals to call together a conclave to elect a successor. From the start it is obvious that there is a small number of “papabiles” (likely candidates for the vacant throne) – the favourites being Cardinal Tedesco, the traditionalist, Cardinal Bellini, the reluctant candidate, Cardinal Tremblay, the ambitious North American and Cardinal Adeyemi, the African with strong views on the role of women and gay marriage.
Cut off from the rest of the world – the cardinals must live and meet in seclusion without access to books, newspapers or any form of electronic equipment – tensions and rumours quickly spread among them. The first problem Lomeli encounters is when, instead of the 117 cardinals he is expecting, his assistant informs him that there are in fact 118. The gathering has been joined by a cardinal no one has heard of – Vincent Benítez, Archbishop of Baghdad, created cardinal in pectore, by the previous pope in secret in order to protect his safety.
What follows over the next three days is similar to any political election – secret canvassing for favourite candidates, old secrets and scandals being exposed, financial irregularities taking centre stage. Trapped in the hothouse atmosphere of the conclave, it is up to Lomeli to try to unravel the twisted strands of deception and ambition and expose who might be a suitable candidate for the highest role in the Catholic Church.
If you are not familiar with the novels of Robert Harris, he is a writer you really should explore and who never disappoints. His plots, always centred around some political scenario, are well researched but hugely readable and well deserve the recent Guardian reviewer’s description of them as “unputdownable”. They work extremely well as audiobooks and many have been turned into films: Fatherland, Enigma, Archangel (starring Daniel Craig) and more recently “The Ghost”, filmed in 2010 as “The Ghost Writer” by Roman Polanski and starring Ewan McGregor and Pierce Brosnan.
Probably the most flattering thing you can say about a reader is that you are not conscious of the reading, just of the effect that’s being created and that is the case with Roy McMillan here. As the story gathers pace, it is impossible to stop listening and you will remain riveted to the very end. Most of Robert Harris’s books are available from audible.co.uk and this one lasts 8h 19mins