Elect of God

conclaveReview by David Southwell

Book | Conclave | Robert Harris

The Synod of Victoria and Tasmania has just chosen a new moderator-elect, and while that may have had some measure of excitement, it’s unlikely to be the subject of an airport bookshop thriller such as this.

Picking a new pope is the subject of Robert Harris’ gripping but somewhat fanciful account of ecclesiastical politics and intrigue in Conclave.

Through the eyes of Cardinal Lomeli, a scrupulously dedicated but spiritually troubled Vatican functionary, we witness the death of a pope who sounds suspiciously like the current office-holder and the gathering of the 118 or so cardinals to choose his successor.

The men go into a type of seclusion and follow a formal series of steps to pick the head of the Catholic church, which emerges when two thirds agree in a secret ballot.

The cardinals, as portrayed by Harris, are a mixture of the decent and devout, the ideologically and factionally aligned and the venal, compromised or highly ambitious, however ritually disavowing of earthly rewards.

Harris is a former political journalist thoroughly familiar with the major players and machinations of the Blair era of British politics.

An inside understanding of the terrain of power and persuasion along with his taut journalistic storytelling makes him an accomplished writer of political thrillers (The Ghost) and historical fiction  (Fatherland, Pompeii and the thoroughly addictive Cicero trilogy).

Harris excels at creating atmosphere with enough authoritative-sounding detail to give the sense of being immersed in the arcane Vatican surrounds and practises, with the humane, sincere and fastidious Lomeli acting as our guide.

In keeping with the sense of discovering a heavenly mandate, the book has a strong sense that a foreordained outcome is being worked out – and in truth it is not wholly unpredictable, although some incredulity is invited.

This book is not Harris’ best but its potent mix of piety and politics unfailingly compels the reader on towards finding out who will eventually step out on the papal balcony to assume spiritual leadership of a billion people.

Available at www.penguinrandomhouse.com

RRP $26.95

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