‘The Second Sleep’ by Robert Harris

‘The Second Sleep’ held me in its power from the first page by the strength of its prose and the clarity of its images. I was immediately immersed in the Somerset being described. I’ve lived in the region for a long time and it felt to me like coming home, except that it was not quite the same home I am accustomed to. That turned out to be part of the point of the novel.

Only slowly did I become aware that the world I was seeing so clearly was in the right place but the wrong time.

Chapter One opens with this description:

‘Late on the afternoon of Tuesday 9th April in the year of Our Risen Lord 1468, a solitary traveller was to be observed, picking his way on horseback across the wild moorland of that ancient region of southwestern England, known since Saxon times as Wessex.’

I was fairly sure that I was reading about a fifteenth-century traveller riding across the moorlands and hills that I know well. I completely missed the slight but important difference signalled by the date being given as ‘the year of Our Risen Lord‘ instead of the familiar, ‘year of Our Lord‘.

As I journeyed with the weary, soon to be benighted, traveller, I learned that he was a priest far from home, finding his way through unfamiliar countryside. When he reached the top of a hill and got his first view of his destination, the geography seemed familiar and the architecture lulled me further into my assumption of being in the fifteenth century. Here’s what the cleric sees:

‘At the bottom of valley, about a mile distant, was a river with a bridge. Next to it a small settlement of mostly thatched rooves was centred around a squire stone church tower.

It was only when he reached the church tower that I was pulled out of the illusion. I read:

‘He halted at the lichgate and looked about him. A cobbled path led through the graveyard to the portico of a church that he guessed must have stood square on this land for at least a thousand years, more likely fifteen hundred.’

The oldest church I’ve seen in these parts is Saxon, dating from the eleventh century. A square tower like this sounds Norman and is more likely to be from the twelfth century. I realised that either this cleric didn’t know his churches and was adding a thousand years to what should have been a two-hundred-and-something year-old church or I wasn’t in the fifteenth century but in the late twenty-first or early twenty-second century. So why the thatched roofs and the travel by horseback?

The whole book is like that. A time and place clearly, often beautifully described, but one that is not our past or our present but an unexpected future.

‘The Second Sleep’ is a post-apocalyptic novel. Not one of those living-in-the-ashes aftermath post-apocalyptic novels but one where the apocalypse itself is a distant memory.

For me, what made it fascinating was the way this new present over-wrote our past and our present, a new occupant in a place that’s largely unchanged. Part of the conceit of the book is the dominance of the Church Of England and the use of the St. James version of the Bible as the basis for all authorised English. This brings back Thee and Yea form of speech which is archaic but familiar. It makes the new reality easier to understand but does not make it any less strange and unique.

Yet this novel is more than a clever idea, it’s a window into a whole world. What makes the view worth seeing is that the characters in the story feel very real. None of them are simplifications. They are complex people, capable of surprising me as I read about them. There is no proselytising. No political message. Just a view of real people, recognisable as people we might meet but whose beliefs and expectations have been shaped by different circumstances.

I won’t go into the plot here, except to say that it was engaging and surprising and perfectly paced. The ending takes some thinking about. What I took away from it was the idea that each generation is bound to its own present and has its own selective view of history but that we are always driven by the same things: passion, fear, curiosity, pride, love, the need to know and the need to be safe.

I recommend the audiobook version of ‘The Second Sleep’. Roy McMillan does an excellent job in bringing this novel to life. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.

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