BookBrowse Reviews Conclave by Robert Harris

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by Robert Harris

Conclave by Robert Harris X
Conclave by Robert Harris
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  • First Published:
    Nov 2016, 304 pages

    Jul 2017, 416 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Kate Braithwaite
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About this Book



Conclave is a fascinating fictional roller-coaster ride through the process of electing a new Pope.

Although best known for his fact-based historical thrillers, in Conclave, best-selling author Robert Harris conjures up the modern-day world of the Vatican populated by fictional but very believable characters. The sudden death of the Pope turns Cardinal Lomeli's ordered world upside down. Lomeli is the member of the Vatican staff responsible for managing the highly ritualized process, known as the papal conclave, that will elect the new Pope.

Although at first the number of names, titles, and religious terminology is a little overwhelming, Harris quickly establishes the world of the Vatican and the main players. Almost in the manner of a country-house crime novel, the author carefully assembles his cast and lets the fun begin. There is an Italian conservative contingent, that favors Cardinal Tedesco, rather than the liberal Cardinal Bellini, who is Lomeli's favorite to be the next Holy Father. Then there is Cardinal Adeyemi, an African and potentially "the first black Pope," although the smooth-talking Canadian, Cardinal Tremblay, may have something to say about that. And finally there is also the Cardinal of Baghdad—secretly appointed by the recently deceased Pope—whose arrival nearly throws Lomeli's careful plans awry.

What follows is a gripping page-turning read. The process of the conclave involves eligible cardinals (in this case, 118) meeting in the Sistine Chapel and carrying out a series of secret ballots until one among them takes a majority of votes and can be declared the new Pope. As each round fails to provide a definitive outcome, tensions rise. Politics, scandals – sexual and financial – play their part and Lomeli, almost against his will, is forced to investigate his fellow Cardinals while finding his own name appearing in the ballots with increasing support.

The attention to detail and fulsome description of the key locations of the novel – primarily the Sistine Chapel and the Casa Santa Marta where the Cardinals all sleep and eat for the duration of the conclave – bring this story to vivid life. Even if this conclave is fictional, the novel has wonderful authenticity. Places and characters are believable and convincing, and although the ending may stretch credulity a little, Harris succeeds in the delicate balance of placing absorbing fiction within a real setting.

Particularly enjoyable is the unique way in which the Vatican maintains tradition in the modern world. "It might have been a scene from the sixteenth century," Lomeli thinks as the Cardinals arrive in Rome for the conclave, "except for the noise of their wheeled suitcases, clattering over the cobbles."

This highly recommended novel is a fine blend of information and insight into the rituals of the conclave, and is perfectly matched with a tense and dramatic plot.

Reviewed by Kate Braithwaite

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in January 2017, and has been updated for the August 2017 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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Beyond the Book:
  A Whiff of Papal Controversy


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