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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