Review: ‘Conclave’ by Robert Harris

Last weekend, I reviewed the first book I’d read out of obligation for a few years. It hadn’t been a great experience – mostly, a book I had to step back, take some distance form and say ‘just not for me’. Fortunately, the next book I picked up for my Masters course was a far better experience. Conclave is something I would never have picked up without this kind of prompting, and definitely demonstrated the upsides of moving outside my comfort zone. Unexpectedly, I really enjoyed this story.


Conclave follows the events between the death of one Pope and the election of another, centred on the Dean of the College of Cardinals, Cardinal Jacopo Lomelli. In general, I avoid books described as ‘thrillers’. I know that I am easily stressed out as a reader, so books that specifically set out to create stress do not go to the top of my list – or, more likely, make the list at all. See why I haven’t (and won’t) read The Girl on the Train.

There is plenty of tension present in this story, carefully heightened as we move toward the selection of a new Pope, and yet for someone nervous about thrillers, it was never too much. Actually, having finished the book I thought about what classifies it as a thriller in general. I don’t have an answer to that question, although I’m not arguing it doesn’t fit the category, but it gave me a really refreshing perspective on a genre I usually wouldn’t stray into.

What I found most impressive was how Harris handles the presence of faith in this story – and I very specifically say faith, rather than religion. Lomelli’s own crisis of faith within the story, as well as providing him with internal conflict, invites in readers from many kinds of religious experience. While certain aspects of the story might not be entirely plausible on reflection, they sit within the narrative perfectly because of the depth of research Harris has to back up the story, and how effectively this is situated before other elements start creeping in.

This book pleasantly surprised me in how much I enjoyed it, and for that reason I’d encourage anyone who might not otherwise have looked at it to give it another chance. The blurb on the jacket certainly describes it as more melodramatic than it felt – for some people that may be a downside, but for me it was a benefit. It was in no way lacking in tension, but Harris very subtly builds up a claustrophobic world. Mostly, I really liked the character of Lomelli, and really enjoyed spending a few hours with him.



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