When I review books I am effusive. I use clichés, quick summaries, love making pronouncements, and use all the adjectives I can get my keyboard on. With Robert Harris’ Conclave I thought I would have to add something else to that list: embellishing and stretching the truth. I was very certain I wouldn’t like it because a book about wannabe popes choosing the next pope sounded dull and boring. But two things urged me to get a copy for myself and give it a read: people loved Conclave and I loved the cover. So I started it just before I went on holiday and planned to read it on the flight to Vienna. Instead I finished it before the plane even took off because it was (and here comes the cliché), unputdownable.
Set a few years in the future, Conclave is the story of what happens when the pope dies. The cardinals have all arrived at the Vatican in order to elect a successor. In other words powerful, ambitious men have gathered to make a very big decision. And like all plots nothing goes smoothly.
Our hero is Cardinal Lomeli, dean of the College of Cardinals and he is responsible for presiding over the conclave. The main contenders (because it is definitely a contest) to be the next pope are Tremblay from NorthAmerica, Adeyemi from Africa, and Tedesco from Italy. One is a traditional, one is ambitious, and one has very strong views on the role of women and gay marriage. Discovering which wannabe pope exhibits which characteristic was one of the great joys of Conclave so I shan’t say and leave it at that. Thrown into the mix is a cardinal no one has ever heard of or ever met – Vincent Benitez, someone who was made cardinal in pectore, created by the last pope n secret in order to protect his identity.
With the characters in place, the stage is set and the balloting begins. There is a lot of information in this book and I learnt A LOT about how the conclave and the Vatican works – a lot of which I didn’t even know I needed to know. Most of the time this information was really easy to understand and only a handful of times did I need to re-read a paragraph in order to fully understand what I was learning.
As one ballot follows another, and another, and another, more twists and secrets are revealed. The corruption, the greed, the ambition is laid out so well. And the ending was something else altogether. I suspected part of it but the very last twist had me grinning.
As someone who doesn’t follow any pope-based activity and has no interest in cardinals I don’t know if the characters in the book mirror their real life counterparts. I suspect that some of them do and I know that if you have any sort of previous interest or knowledge on this subject then you will enjoy Conclave even more.
Robert Harris’ Conclave really is unputdownable and I recommend it to everyone to read. It’s published by Cornerstone and on sale now from all good and evil retailers.