Conclave

by Robert Harris

A fantastic book; I don’t know when I was last so gripped by a book, and so keen to keep on reading.

True, I read it (or started to read it) on holiday, having picked up my copy in a charity shop in Sherborne, Dorset.  The setting doesn’t sound too promising: a conclave to elect the next pope.  But as the characters of various of the cardinals become exposed to the reader through the eyes of the Dean, Cardinal Lomeli, the reader gets swept along with a story which has several twists and turns.  The final twist is astonishing and sublimely satisfying.

It would be hard to say more about this book without spoilers.  Suffice to say that you warm to Lomeli from the start, but also begin to understand that although most (all?) of the papal candidates have flaws, they are ultimately human beings.

The world outside the Vatican does not obtrude through much of the story – but when it does, it is in the most dramatic way.

Harris has, as always, thoroughly researched the background to his story. He describes in some detail the process of the ballots, and even the clothing of the cardinals and the care and reverence with which they don each garment. Too much detail?  Probably not; to understand the thinking of these men it is perhaps necessary to get to grips with the minutiae of their lives.  Prayer takes a central place in this story.  Lamely is finding it difficult and this causes him some distress.  Others are observed praying at various times and in various ways.  You get the feeling that whatever their flaws, these are all pious men.

I can recommend this book unhesitatingly.

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Dictator

by Robert Harris

This is Harris’ most recent publication, and the third in a sequence of books dealing with the life and times of Cicero.  The second book in the series, Lustrum, had been a book group choice several years ago.  At that time, I had not yet read anything by Harris, and found the book gripping and a satisfying read.  The author seems to have a very good grip on politics and social life in Ancient Rome, and I found his portrayal of both the similarities and the differences between those times and ours very convincing.

All the same, I didn’t finish this book.  Though Cicero was a statesman and orator, not a military man at all, the time in which he lived was a time of war, particularly the civil war leading up to the dictatorship of Julius Caesar.  A good chunk of the book is given over to descriptions of sieges and battles – something that doesn’t interest me greatly.

Perhaps I gave up on the book because I was unwell when I read it.  I will come back to this author, having thoroughly enjoyed An Officer and a Spy as well as Pompeii.

Pompeii

by Robert Harris

This is the third of Harris’ books I have read.  He does not disappoint.  This one was recommended to me by Pat Ranson, with whom I often discuss books and who has given me quite a few reading tips.

I downloaded the book on my Kindle.  The story covers the two days before the eruption and the day of the eruption itself.  Real characters appearing in the story include, of course, Pliny, who famously went out in a boat and wrote about the eruption as he watched it.  But the main characters are Attilius, a young aqueduct engineer from Rome, recently moved to the Naples area, and Corelia, the daughter of Ampliatus, a rich and bullying former slave turned businessman.

The relationship between these two is somewhat extraneous to the story, and although it helps it to move along (and provides a love interest) the story would probably have worked just as well if the young woman had no part in it – though her father’s behaviour and brutality are based on true stories.

The story moves fast, and is all the more engaging because you, the reader, know what is going to happen.  Each chapter begins with an explanation of the geological mechanisms as we now understand them; and the author manages to inspire our respect for the Romans who tried to understand these mechanisms with the knowledge available to them.  Harris understands well that people were no less intelligent in ancient times to now.  They try to fathom what is happening and offer various explanations as to why.  Most tellingly, the former chief engineer was a native of the area of Etna on Sicily and Attilius comes to the conclusion that he anticipated the eruption before his untimely death on the volcano.

The geography of the book is beguiling; the more so when one has visited the area.  I felt that I learned about Roman life, and in particular about naval life in that era.  Until now I had never properly been able to visualise Pliny the Elder watching the eruption from a ship.

The bibliography is extensive, and after reaching the end of this novel I was prompted to reserve Mary Beard’s book on Pompeii from the library.

An Officer and a Spy

by Robert Harris

A gripping novel based (closely, as far as I can determine) on the story of Colonel Georges Picquart’s quest for justice in the ‘Dreyfus affair’.  The story is narrated in the present tense by Picquart, and brings to life not only the well-documented facts of the original Dreyfus court martial and subsequent court cases, but also the personalities involved and the range of emotional states the Picquart goes through as the story unfolds.

I have only read one other book by Harris, Lustrum, which was proposed by one of our book group members and which I also found an enthralling read.  Harris appears to research his subjects thoroughly and has a very good feel for the eternal truths of politics and the power struggle.  Whether writing about Ancient Rome or late nineteenth century France, he is able to get under the skin of his characters and show what makes them tick – whether the character is one for whom we are expected to feel sympathy, or not.