There’s a big idea in Robert Harris’s latest thriller. All civilisations fail eventually — even scientifically advanced ones like our own.
Unfortunately, it’s pretty much the only idea in this readable but deeply unsatisfying novel.
The action is set in Wessex, 1468. A young priest from a regional monastery travels by horse to bury a fellow clergyman in a small village. There seems to be some mystery about how he died, although this segues into a bigger mystery about what he was researching and what the hell has happened to this world.
You see the 1468 date is a tad misleading. It soon becomes apparent the world experienced a Biblical Apocalypse sometime in 2025 and historical time was restarted at the year 666, in honour of the Beast. Eight hundred years have now passed and all that’s left of late capitalism is plastic, curiously shaped glass, and the odd iPhone.
It’s a great set-up but that’s basically it. It’s as though the twist in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village was introduced a quarter of the way into the movie. After the big reveal, Harris doesn’t really take things any further.
Sure, there’s a semblance of a plot, which vaguely centres on the role played by an early twenty-first-century scientist Morgenstern in the events that took place in the immediate wake of the Apocalypse. There’s a sub-plot hingeing on the forbidden romance of the priest and local landowner Lady Sarah Durston, who is engaged to the brutish Captain Hancock.
But all this feels like an afterthought. The revelation has already happened, and there’s nothing to really sustain our interest for the next few hundred pages.
It’s a shame because, as I say, it’s a great premise for a novel, and a highly topical one at that. Perhaps the flaw is focusing too heavily on the plot and the mystery, rather than the impact the Apocalypse has on the characters who must inhabit this fallen world.
An excellent example of how things could have been handled is John Lanchester’s The Wall, which spends relatively little time on what forced Britain to build its Wall — maybe Johnson called in Trump to deal with the EU, once and for all? Instead, Lanchester is far more interested in what happens to people who live in a constant state of extreme vigilance, and their relationship with a generation who put them in that position in the first place.
Of course, looking for psychological nuance in Robert Harris is a fool’s errand. He’s a thinking person’s Dan Brown — thankfully, far less reliant on italics to create drama! Getting from plot point to plot point is the main goal of the narrative, and characterisation is largely a question of distinguishing the scholar, from the bully, from the temptress, from the coward, from the traitor.
Perhaps because of these character limitations, The Second Sleep is largely interchangeable with Harris’s earlier work Pompeii, which again features a society on the verge of catastrophe, a high-minded protagonist determined to get to the bottom of a mystery, a forbidden love affair and so on.
Unlike Pompeii, though, where we know largely how it will all end, The Second Sleep keeps holding out the promise of something more interesting just around the corner. It’s not until you get to the last chapter or so that you realise there’s not enough paper left to hold a further grand reveal.
Despite its promise of describing a world that’s not what it seems — in which the truth is buried literally as well as metaphorically — this novel never does more than scrabble about on the surface.