I suspect the opening of this novel with a lone rider against the elements and the approaching darkness is intended to conjure a familiar image in the mind of the reader. It’s a trope, John Fowles used something similar more than once. It’s intriguing and disarming but in this case it’s also deceptive, because this novel is not what you might think, it’s certainly not what I was expecting. Harris enjoys including a playful, mildly mischievous element to his fiction but this novel explores that quality with gusto even though the themes are serious and familiar. The Second Sleep is refreshingly original, intriguing and thought provoking. Be prepared to take a path through the woods less travelled.

It’s a murder mystery that has the intelligence and perception we have come to expect from a Harris novel. The setting is inventive and perfectly pitched, the regional accents and location play perfectly into the meaning of the story. The Second Sleep deals in grand themes but manages to display them on a small canvas to great effect, for the village of Adcut read the wider world.

Harris tells us that 9th April, 1468 is a Tuesday. Our solo horseman is desperate to make his destination before the curfew, a breach could mean a night in jail, even for a priest on the way to perform a funeral service. As he heads into the storm and the rain Fairfax suspects that the men outside the inn in Axford may have sent him the wrong way, drunken mischief. Eventually he sees a figure ahead, a man with a cart, trying to outrun him in fear. He assures the traveller he means no harm. Finally he is redirected to Addicot St. George, Adcut. He should have taken a fork in the road half a mile back, he turns around. The narrow path through the woods is steep but he finally sees candle light and houses. Arriving at the church he is met by the dead priest’s housekeeper, Agnes Budd. An unseen girl, Rose, attends to his horse as Agnes answers his questions about Father Thomas Lacy for the eulogy. The young priest, Christopher Fairfax, has been sent from Exeter, an eight-hour ride, by Bishop Pole to officiate at the funeral of the dead village priest, Father Lacy. A mission that apparently requires discretion, the young man is unsure what that means. He is soon confronted by an inconvenient truth, the priest’s library contains several heretical works. That night Fairfax’s sleep is disturbed by the noise of people in the village up and about at 2am, the gap between the first and second sleep. Wide awake Fairfax takes a candle to explore the priest’s books and finds The Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries, a forbidden work, banned and burned, the writers imprisoned for heresy. So Lacy was a heretic, that might account for his thirty plus years in the wilderness, when his friend rose to the rank of bishop. There are other perverse volumes on the shelves and the priest’s cabinets contain forbidden artefacts; shards of bottle, ceramics and coins from a past heretical civilisation.

In the morning Fairfax meets Rose, Agnes’s eighteen-year-old niece, the girl is unable to speak, she is shy, a girl difficult to marry off he thinks – Fairfax is fascinated by her. He is only here for one day but his youthful, naive musings lead him to wonder about staying:

“. . . In the long winter evenings he might even teach her to overcome her affliction. And in his daily struggle to master temptation he would move closer to God. Would it really be such a bad life?”

Fairfax makes arrangements for the funeral of Father Lacy. The church is full, local dignitaries Lady Durston and Captain Hancock in the front pew. A man at the back interrupts the service when Fairfax alludes to the evil chance causing Lacy’s death. Hancock removes the man and the service continues.

“forasmuch as it hath pleased Almighty God of His great mercy to take unto himself the soul of our dear brother here departed . . .”

After the service Father Fairfax asks: “What do you suppose he meant when he said the Father Lacy’s death was no mere chance?” Lacy fell from the Devil’s Chair while out walking alone.

The old man said cheerfully, “Oh, that he were taken by the devils, no doubt about it.”
“The devils?”
“The devils that sit in the Devil’s Chair.”

As Fairfax is preparing to leave they discover that the the parish registers have gone missing, all four volumes, this he must report to the bishop but it delays his exit with the weather worsening. Finally he ascends the steep path but it is cut off by landslide high up and Fairfax must return to the village. He begins to investigate the works of the Society of Antiquaries and realises that this area is somehow important to them. He soon realises that Lady Durston and many of the parishioners knew of Lacy’s heresy. He begins to question how Father Lacy died, and what is hidden at the Devil’s Chair. What Fairfax finds will shake his own beliefs to their very core . . .

This novel appears to be one thing but by the third chapter the whole direction of the story has changed, there’s a passage I read again to be sure I hadn’t misunderstood it. Then I thought back, some of the very early details are strange, they hint at this shift and now make more sense. I’m not going to be the one to spoil the surprise but while this may explore familiar Harris themes, religion and philosophy among them, The Second Sleep is an exciting divergence for Harris. Incidentally a couple of the clues are here too but they don’t mean much until you know what is going on in the novel.

I used to think that Harris was best when dealing with real historical events and people: the Cicero trilogy is a masterpiece, An Officer and a Spy brilliant, and Munich is insightful and exciting. However, Conclave, a truly riveting work, and The Second Sleep have convinced me that Harris is a master of purely imaginative fiction too. This novel is radically different to him. It is also thought provoking because it deals with important contemporary themes – a novel in the zeitgeist. More than anything this is a message for our times.

Harris is very concerned with faith and the perversion of faith, the need of people for something to believe in life – a search for meaning in life. The Second Sleep is also a damn good thriller, a page turning read.

Paul Burke 4/4

The Second Sleep by Robert Harris
Hutchinson 9781786331373 hbk Sep 2019