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In 'The Second Sleep,' The World May End, But Life Goes On

Robert Harris' novels have often looked at the complex workings of powerful people and institutions, with Fatherland (1992) and The Ghost (2007) being perhaps the most prominent examples. He has also been drawn to such people and institutions: In 2018, when asked about his continued collaboration with Roman Polanski, Harrissaid that he needn't change his opinion just because "the fashion has changed" — referring to the #MeToo movement — adding that "[Polanski] won the Oscar, he got a standing ovation in Los Angeles," as if the academy and Hollywood celebrity's institutional power were enough to grant absolution. Whether or not that's been on his mind, Harris's new book is concerned with questions of institutional power, hypocrisy and individual moral choices, but in a wholly different era of changed perceptions.

The Second Sleep is a pleasingly genre-bending novel that passes itself off as historical fiction in its early pages. Christopher Fairfax, a young priest, rides to Addicott St. George, a village in Wessex, with a rather simple mission: He is to carry out the funeral service for Addicott's recently deceased Father Lacey. Quickly, however, reader expectations are wonderfully overturned as Fairfax examines, with some distaste, a display case full of ancient artifacts, including "pens, glassware, a plate commemorating a royal wedding ..." (wait, what?) "... a bundle of plastic straws ..." (huh?) and "what seemed to be the pride of the collection: one of the devices used by the ancients to communicate," which has on its back "the ultimate symbol of the ancients' hubris and blasphemy — an apple with a bite taken out of it."

The year may be 1468, but it's not the one in the past — Fairfax is, in fact, living in the future, one in which the Apocalypse is widely believed to have occurred just as it was prophesied in the New Testament, after which Christ rose anew and humankind was once again saved. The Church — a political as well as religious entity in this future England, closely tied to and seemingly far more important than the monarchy — started counting years anew after the Apocalypse, beginning with 666, the number of the beast.

As Fairfax learns more about Addicott's dead priest, he becomes increasingly uncomfortable. It appears that Father Lacey was a collector of artifacts that have become, in the past couple of decades, illegal to own. Worse even than the plastic doodads and useless electronics in his possession, which Father Lacey found in the vicinity of the village, the priest had a library full of illegal books hypothesizing about the ancients who worshipped science and forgot God, bringing about their own downfall.

But Fairfax is practical and smart: "Not for him the fanaticism of some of his fellow younger clergy, with their straggling hair and beards and their wild eyes, who could sniff out blasphemy as keenly as a water hound unearths truffles. ... The wisest course would be to go on as planned and pretend he knew nothing." Of course, because otherwise we would have no novel, he also looks at the books — just out of natural curiosity! — and finds them not only compelling but in the end, life-altering. As Fairfax becomes entangled in a quest for further knowledge, he allies with a local widow and businessman, as well as a pair of queer-coded scholarly men, but to say more would be to remove the fun of discovery.

The ancients, clearly, are us, and the novel's premise could have been hokey, but Harris doesn't rely too heavily on references to our present. Instead, through Fairfax's shifting beliefs about the past causing changes to his present, Harris makes a more subtle point — both a dire warning and a somewhat hopeful possibility. Yes, technology has taken a dramatic step back, distances take longer to cross, infant mortality has risen, and life spans are shorter in this future England that is waging a constant low-grade war with a distant Caliphate (implying that religion has become a guiding principle and seat of power elsewhere as well). But life has not ceased, and hope, joy and comfort continue to be found among and between human beings.

Addicott St. George — a village that existed before the Apocalypse, to which life returned after, and which exists some 800 years in the future — becomes, in a way, the novel's conscience, caught between a power-hungry church and knowledge-hungry laymen. Its people, in the end, care less about their former priest being a bit heretical or the possible treasure in scientific knowledge lying underground nearby than they do about keeping one another safe and fed and alive for as long as they can be.

Ilana Masad is an Israeli-American fiction writer, critic and founder/host of the podcast The Other Stories. Her debut novel, All My Mother's Lovers, is forthcoming from Dutton in 2020.

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Ilana Masad