THE SECOND SLEEP
By Robert Harris
As a novelist, Robert Harris has a gift of immersing readers in an unfamiliar milieu, and thrilling them with the subsequent emotional, physical and ethical challenges faced by the protagonist as he (and it is always he) navigates mounting obstacles to a supposedly routine task — and, in the process, unearths unexpected truths.
Those who are familiar with such classic Harris historical thrillers as “Imperium” will, then, settle into the opening pages of “The Second Sleep” alert for clues. April 1468: The arrogant, newly ordained Christopher Fairfax is journeying to the remote Wessex village of Addicott St. George to perform a burial service, that of the village’s priest, Father Lacy. The reader nods knowingly as the bishop of Exeter instructs Fairfax to be quick about the trip and to use utmost discretion. As the young priest and his ancient mare plod through the gray, mist-sodden landscape, his arrogance turns to uneasiness. And as clues flick past — the emerald flash of a parakeet, a church that has “stood square on this land for at least a thousand years, more likely fifteen hundred” — we begin to share that unease.
At the parsonage the dissonance swells alarmingly — a long-case clock, spectacles — until, on Page 22, Fairfax stumbles over the dead priest’s secret, a stash of forbidden ancient artifacts that includes 21st-century pound notes and an iPhone. The heart of the matter is revealed: We are not in the Wessex of 550 years ago but 850 years into the future. This is not a historical thriller but a ruined-earth novel, set in a world reborn after a long-ago apocalypse.
Harris leaves the specifics of the apocalypse open to interpretation: perhaps climate change (those parakeets, olive groves, tobacco grown locally), perhaps technological collapse. The church seems to lean toward the latter, and as a result has banned scientism and any unhealthy interest in ancients’ technology. Harris seems to be saying that churches, with their enduring stone buildings, would make natural nexus points for the survivors. And this is where readers familiar with ruined-earth novels and their rigorous logical extrapolation might begin to have difficulties.
We may wonder whether village pubs, also old, made of stone, and centrally located in rural communities — with the added bonus of running water and fireplaces — might not have been more likely gathering places. Or we may ask why, of the vast multicultural population of pre-apocalyptic Britain, only straight, white, able-bodied people appear to have survived. (All physical character descriptions are relentlessly Caucasian, we encounter only one chronically ill person and the single character who may be gay is definitely a traitorous wretch.) Most damningly, we want to know how a Britain depleted of easily accessible natural resources, such as coal and iron ore, could claw its way back to an apparently late-18th-century level of industry — with precisely the same cultural mores.
Best then not to approach the novel from this perspective. The closest match might be to an 18th-century Gothic romance: the alluring lady of the manor, the hard-driving bull of a mill owner, the conscience-stricken young priest, the final drama played out in the drenching rain and stormlight. But there is a surprising lack of narrative tension, the internal inconsistencies are confounding and we have guessed the denouement long before it arrives. In the end, even Harris seems to give up, and all fades to black in a shower of cold, wet dirt.