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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



Robert Harris

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To purchase Conclave

Title: Conclave
Author: Robert Harris
Genre: Novel
Written: 2016
Length: 289 pages
Availability: Conclave - US
Conclave - UK
Conclave - Canada
Conclave - India
Konklave - Deutschland
Conclave - Italia

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Our Assessment:

B : enjoyable if fairly basic election-thriller

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 7/10/2016 John Gapper
The Globe and Mail A+ 11/11/2016 Margaret Cannon
The Guardian A 24/9/2016 Ian Sansom
Irish Independent A 2/10/2016 Darragh McManus
Irish Times . 24/9/2016 John Boyne
The NY Times Book Rev. . 4/12/2016 Vanessa Friedman
San Francisco Chronicle B+ 23/12/2016 Gerald Bartell
Sunday Times . 18/9/2016 David Grylls
The Times . 17/9/2016 Robbie Millen
Wall St. Journal A+ 22/12/2016 Allan Massie
The Washington Post . 22/11/2016 Dennis Drabelle

  Review Consensus:

  Fun and fast, if fairly light entertainment

  From the Reviews:
  • "Set in the near future, Conclave is full of craftsmanship. (...) The moral message of Conclave, though, is somewhat less striking than the pleasure of reading it." - John Gapper, Financial Times

  • "Thereís no other way to put it: Conclave is one of the best crime novels of 2016. In fact, it may be one of the best novels of 2016. (...) It is the best Robert Harris novel to date." - Margaret Cannon, The Globe and Mail

  • "(T)here is only one possible word to describe Robert Harrisís new novel, and it is this: unputdownable. (...) I have no idea if Harris shapes his books as he proceeds -- like a potter at the wheel -- or if he works from some complex set of outlines and notes. What I do know is that in Conclave the sequence is very simple and pleasing indeed." - Ian Sansom, The Guardian

  • "Conclave has all the elements of great drama: power-plays, politicking, tension, errors, risk. So far, so West Wing or House of Cards. What raises the story above that is the setting. (...) The whole thing is fairly absurd, sure, but there's a sort of magnificence in that absurdity. Conclave reads as though The Godfather has met Machiavelli to discuss a history of the Borgias, and is as thoroughly enjoyable as that sounds." - Darragh McManus, Irish Independent

  • "(I)tís a shame that Conclave, while an entertaining read, proves far less insightful than it might have been. (...) Unconcerned with religious debate or philosophical argument, Conclave quickly descends into high camp. (...) And yet, for all its faults, thereís no denying that the novel is a page-turner. (...) Conclave is fun but ultimately proves so silly that it just canít stand comparison with his earlier work." - John Boyne, Irish Times

  • "Harris has done his research, and it shows, though he is also careful to situate his story in the contemporary world. That tension adds to the ambience. (...) Harris has written a gripping, smart book. The only quibble, ironically enough, is that it could have used a touch more soul." - Vanessa Friedman, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The suspense inherent in finding out who will become pope is a surefire way to keep the reader turning pages, the authorís strong writing freshens the familiar with color, and his keen sense of character humanizes the baroque proceedings. (...) Conclave is not the best thriller Harris has ever written. But the machinations surrounding the papal election will surely fascinate and hold many readers." - Gerald Bartell, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "I am inclined to think that Conclave is his best yet. (...) Conclave can be read as a thriller. It is indeed a thriller and a very good one, written with the authority that comes from the combination of scrupulous research and a sympathetic imagination. So it is more than a thriller; it is a novel of ideas, and one in which the authorís characters are tested, some diminishing, others growing as the story unfolds. I couldnít imagine this theme being better treated." - Allan Massie, Wall Street Journal

  • "(S)uspenseful but not violent, steeped in religious history but taking place the day after tomorrow. (...) Regardless of whether you have faith in God, the Church, or neither, Conclave will keep you richly entertained." - Dennis Drabelle, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Conclave is set in the near future -- 2022, "sixty years since the Second Vatican Council" -- and opens with the death of the Pope. The novel centers on Jacopo Lomelli who, as Dean of the College of Cardinals, is tasked with managing the election of the new leader of the Catholic Church -- arranging and leading the Pope-electing conclave ("From the Latin, con clavis: 'with a key'" -- since the Cardinals are (more or less) locked in until they elect a Pope). Of course, such an election, for such a powerful office, is a wonderful opportunity for intrigue -- and, conveniently, Lomelli's "guilty recreation was detective fiction".
       After the papal death, Harris jumps quite quickly a few weeks ahead to the final conclave preparations, and then, once the cardinals have all been gathered together and more or less cut off from the rest of the world, to the day-to-day proceedings, dominated, of course, by the rounds of voting. A practiced historical novelist, Harris weaves in a good bit of papal-election history, arcana, and details without letting it get too much in the way of his story.
       The cardinals are settled in in the purpose-built (under John Paul II, in the mid-1990s) Casa Santa Marta (which doubles as a guest house when not needed for a conclave) -- which happens to be the building the Pope lived and died in. (While the living cardinals are all fictional characters, the Pope, though never named, does closely resemble Pope Francis -- right down to choosing to live in suite 201 of the Casa Santa Marta , rather than the official papal residence.) The (near) locked-in nature of the get-together, with limited interaction with outsiders and no access to news or the internet is designed to let the cardinals focus on the task at hand, but in this case complicates matters, including right from the start, when Lomelli is dealt two literally last-minute surprises, neither of which he can learn much about (since he has little access to outside sources of information that might confirm or deny vital aspects of these things that have just been brought to his attention).
       There are ultimately 118 cardinals eligible to vote, and at the start they're all potentially in the running for the papal seat -- even if Harris limits the contest to a shortlist of favorites pretty much from the start. (Surprisingly, one of the legal/historical details Harris doesn't bother with is that, in principle, there is no requirement that a cardinal be elected, and theoretically a (Catholic) outsider could just as well be voted in.) Harris has his cardinals tend to divide up geographically, with favorites from several of the groupings: a strong Italian contingent (they still have the most cardinals, and are bothered by not having one of their own ascend to the top position in so long) -- whose main problem is internal division (more than one candidate) --, an up-and-coming African contingent (an exciting possibility, with the downside that their candidate is theologically very conservative), a Canadian (who has the: "advantage of seeming to be an American without the disadvantage of actually being one" and: "a French-speaker who was not a Frenchman").
       Several of the candidates come with baggage -- secret, at first, but even in these (relatively) closed surroundings some of it comes out (helped by Lomelli's detective-work) -- immediately affecting the race. Complicating matters for Lomelli, who has to run the show and who insists: "All he had ever desired in this contest was to be neutral. Neutrality had been the leitmotif of his career"", he slowly becomes a contender as well. And they find that the outside world cannot be kept entirely at bay either, as real-world events strike so close to home that they can't but help to influence the voting.
       Harris does a reasonably good job of setting his scene and its routines -- especially the rather laborious voting- and counting-procedures, which are repeated several times daily -- while building in some decent suspense as well as good old-fashioned politicking. The theology is pretty basic here -- at one point the race seems to be: "between unyielding principle on the one hand and yearning for compromise on the other" --, as are the discussions about the role and future of the Church. Indeed, this isn't a particularly 'Catholic', much less papal thriller, but a more generic election-one -- down to one of the candidates trying to dissuade Lomelli from making certain revelations, as then: "I would be the Richard Nixon of Popes !"
       Conclave isn't particularly subtle, and while Harris sustains suspense about who will carry off the big prize, what is presumably meant to be the biggest surprise in the novel (it's not so much who becomes Pope ...) is telegraphed repeatedly (and, in fact, seems pretty self-evident two-thirds into the novel). (Arguably Harris has to telegraph some -- it can't come entirely out of left field -- but he does so rather more obviously than necessary.)
       It's all reasonably good fun, with the election rhythm and the difficulty in getting at information in the limited time available making for decently-paced suspense, but it's all at a pretty basic level. Lomelli's doubts -- about god, and the Church he's served all his life, and his own role -- add good texture to the character, but almost all the others feel like little more than playing-pieces on some game board. Without really considering the many theological issues that crop up, the novel remains superficial -- an election-thriller that doesn't bother considering the many other issues it touches on at all deeper.
       A fine but not particularly memorable quick read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 7 November 2016

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Conclave: Reviews: Robert Harris: Other books by Robert Harris under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • Roberto Pazzi's papal-election novel, Conclave
  • See also the Index of Contemporary British fiction at the complete review

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About the Author:

       British author Robert Harris, born in 1957, achieved international success with his first novel, Fatherland. He has been a correspondent for the BBC, and a columnist for the Sunday Times.

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© 2016 the complete review

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