Review 1529: The Second Sleep

There are some authors whose books I’ll buy immediately, and Robert Harris is one of them. This means that I haven’t always read what the book is about, and I seldom read the jacket to remind myself before I begin reading, even if I did when I bought the book. Generally speaking, Harris writes excellent historical novels. So, I was reading along, thinking I was in the 15th century, when I suddenly realized I was reading a dystopian novel set far in the future.

After a cataclysmic event, the world has gone through another dark age, and England has emerged into a pre-industrial-age society ruled by the church with a culture that is superstitious and suspicious. Christopher Fairfax is a young priest who has been dispatched by the bishop of Exeter to a small village, Addison St. George, to see that the recently deceased local priest, Father Lacy, is buried.

Upon his arrival, he notices right away that Father Lacy was a heretic, for he finds a library and a collection devoted to the past, before the Apocalypse. Such studies are considered blasphemous, yet the father has a cache of such objects as plastic straws, Barbie dolls, and iPhones.

Fairfax also begins to fear that Father Lacy’s death may have been different than an accidental slip from a feared local structure called the Devil’s Chair. When he investigates, he finds a huge mass grave where Father Lacy had been digging, but it looks like Father Lacy was chased up the slope, which then collapsed.

This is an atmospheric novel, but I didn’t enjoy it as much as I have Harris’s previous novels. For one thing, the idea of the world going into a familiar religious-based Dark Age after a cataclysm isn’t exactly original. For another, the ending is quite abrupt, and I’m not sure how I’m supposed to interpret what Fairfax and the others ultimately find. It’s disturbing, yes, but what does Harris mean by it? I was also confused about something unexplained concerning the title. Harris includes a quote at the beginning of the book that tells us that Western Europeans used to sleep twice each night, waking and returning to sleep after midnight. During his first night in the village, Fairvax awakens to realize that the villagers have all gotten up and gone out, despite an apparent nationwide curfew. All along I was expecting some weird explanation for this. Instead, Fairfax himself is incurious about it, and what the villagers are doing is never explained. Yet there’s the book’s title, which I assume does not refer to this event but to the second dark age.

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6 thoughts on “Review 1529: The Second Sleep

  1. Jane July 13, 2020 / 11:02 am

    Why is the distant future always seen as such a bleak place, it’s so depressing to assume that we won’t be able to get on and have learnt nothing! I agree with you that it seemed more interesting when you thought it was in the 15th century

    • whatmeread July 13, 2020 / 11:05 am

      Yes, and there have been other dystopian novels that brought us back to the Middle Ages in the distant future. Right off the top of my head, I can think of A Canticle for Liebowitz, but I’m sure there are more.

  2. Helen July 13, 2020 / 2:02 pm

    I didn’t like this as much as the other Robert Harris novels I’ve read either. I agree that the ending isn’t very satisfactory and a lot of things aren’t explained properly.

    • whatmeread July 13, 2020 / 6:02 pm

      Yes, I like just about everything else he’s written better. Of course, I haven’t read everything, I don’t think.

  3. FictionFan July 13, 2020 / 6:25 pm

    I loved the way he let us think we were in the past and then suddenly started mentioning things like plastic. For a moment, I thought he’d gone wildly anachronistic on us! 😉

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