The Second Sleep

The Second Sleep

by Robert Harris

Hardcover

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Overview

From the internationally best-selling author of Fatherland and the Cicero Trilogy—a chilling and dark new thriller unlike anything Robert Harris has done before.

1468. A young priest, Christopher Fairfax, arrives in a remote Exmoor village to conduct the funeral of his predecessor. The land around is strewn with ancient artefacts—coins, fragments of glass, human bones—which the old parson used to collect. Did his obsession with the past lead to his death?
Fairfax becomes determined to discover the truth. Over the course of the next six days, everything he believes—about himself, his faith, and the history of his world—will be tested to destruction.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

★ 09/02/2019

Thriller Award–winner Harris (Munich) does a masterly job playing with readers’ expectations in this mystery set in 15th-century England. Fr. Christopher Fairfax has been dispatched by his bishop to Wessex to officiate at the funeral of Fr. Thomas Lacy, a parish priest who died in a fall. The assignment seems routine enough, but on reaching the town of Addicott St. George, he finds unexpected questions to answer. When he visits Lacy’s library, he learns that the man he’s about to inter in consecrated ground possessed numerous heretical volumes relating to an antiquarian society proscribed by the church. Eager to keep things uncomplicated, Fairfax proceeds with the funeral service as if he’d never seen the books, only to have the rites disrupted by an attendee who yells that Lacy’s death was not the result of “evil chance.” When foul weather delays Fairfax’s departure, he finds even more oddities, including the disappearance of the church register and an unsettling letter by a Cambridge professor found in a mass grave, which supports his suspicion that Lacy’s interest in the past was more than innocent scholarly curiosity. Few readers will pick up on the fairly planted clues. This is a clever complement to Harris’s debut mystery, Fatherland. 75,000-copy announced first printing. Agent: Michael Carlisle, Inkwell Management. (Nov.)

From the Publisher

It should be enough that Robert Harris, in his earlier books, makes the lives of Cicero and Caesar even more fascinating, and brings to vivid life the citizens of ancient Rome and 1930’s Munich. With The Second Sleep he cracks open The Time To Come, making his new book a barnburner, leaving the reader wanting only one thing: more, please.”
—Tom Hanks
 
“In the tradition of A Canticle for Leibowitz, Harris presents an extraordinary and terrifyingly plausible vision of a post-technological future, a novel that’s at once an adventure story and a meditation on truth and faith. You’ll never look at your iPhone in quite the same way again.”
—Emily St. John Mandel, author of Station Eleven

“Ingenious . . . The historical thriller hinges on an apocalyptic event and induces a shiver of dread in our present times. . . . When Harris is at his best—and here he is—he writes with a skill and ingenuity that few other novelists can match. In this case, the usual page-turning pleasures are joined by something else: a sense that, through his historical-futuristic setting, Harris has found a unique vantage point to comment on the present.”
—William Skidelsky, The Financial Times
 
“Like [Keith Robert’s] Pavane and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale [Harris] issues a clarion call to the present, urging us to recognise the value of progress, the importance of woolly concepts like liberalism and the rule of law, and all the other ideals we’ve spent generations fighting for yet seem prepared to sacrifice on the altar of populism. . . . Harris is a master of plotting and, in elegant, understated third-person prose, he ratchets the tension ever upwards. . . . A page-turner.”
—Alex Preston, The Guardian (London)
 
“The masterly thriller writer returns.”
—50 Best New Books for Autumn, The Times (London)
 
“As with all Harris’s books, The Second Sleep is thought-provoking and thrilling in equal parts.”
—Claire Hewitt, The Daily Express (London)
 
“The result is a truly surprising future-history thriller. Fabulous, really.”
—David Sexton, Evening Standard
 
“Harris is rightly praised as the master of the intelligent thriller. . . . He creates a world teetering between a second dark age and another industrial revolution, peopled by characters drawn with a Dickensian confidence. Genuinely thrilling, wonderfully conceived and entirely without preaching, it probes the nature of history, of collective memory and forgetting, and exposes the fragility of modern civilisation.”
—Harry Sidebottom, The Telegraph (London)
 
“A thoroughly absorbing, page-turning narrative in which the author, with his customary storytelling skills, pulls us ever deeper into the imaginative world he has created. . . . It poses challenging questions about the meaning of the past, the idea of progress and the stability of civilisation. It is a fine addition to Harris’s diverse body of work. . . [Harris] is working in [the] tradition of the British adventure story, which dates back to John Buchan and, arguably, to late-Victorian works by Robert Louis Stevenson and Conan Doyle.”
—Nick Rennison, The Times (London)
 
“A genre-bending thriller . . . An exploration of a world that is both unfamiliar and as old as time, and of the consequences of our flagrant disregard for the existential perils of our own era. . . . [Harris] has contrived in The Second Sleep to do something rather brilliant and new. He has put us at the heart of the mystery. Whatever disaster has struck the world it has struck because of us, our greed and ambition, our arrogance. We are all responsible. . . . The reader is left with at least as many questions as answers, and most of those questions are directed at ourselves.”
—Clare Clark, The Guardian (London)
 
“Elegant.”
—Antonia Senior, The Times (London)
 
“Harris takes you on a thrilling ride while serving up serious food for thought.”
—Jake Kerridge, The Mirror
 
“Thriller Award–winner Harris (Munich) does a masterly job playing with readers’ expectations . . . . Few readers will pick up on the fairly planted clues. This is a clever complement to Harris’s debut mystery, Fatherland.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Library Journal

06/01/2019

From Fatherland to the "Cicero" trilogy, the internationally best-selling Harris ranges far, here landing in 1468 England. Having traveled to a bleak Exmoor village to conduct the funeral of his predecessor, fresh-faced priest Christopher Fairfax wonders at the man's obsession with the past—he'd hoarded ancient coins, bits of glass, even human bones—and whether that obsession precipitated his death. With a 75,000-copy first printing.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780525656692
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 11/19/2019
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 192,105
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.40(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

The hidden valley



Late on the afternoon of Tuesday the ninth of 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. If this young man’s expression was troubled, we may grant he had good cause. More than an hour had elapsed since he had last seen a living soul. Soon it would be dusk, and if he was caught out of doors after curfew he risked a night in jail.

He had stopped to ask directions in the market town of Axford, where a group of ­rough-­looking fellows had been drinking outside an inn beneath the painted sign of a swan. After grinning between themselves at the strangeness of his accent, and imitating the refinement of his yeses and yous, they had assured him that to reach his destination all he needed to do was to ride straight towards the setting sun. But now he was beginning to suspect this might have been another piece of local mischief, for no sooner had he passed the high walls of the town’s prison, where three executed felons hung rotting from their gibbets, and crossed the river and entered open country than heavy clouds had blown across the western sky, obliterating the sunset. Behind him the tall spire of Axford’s church had long since submerged below the horizon. Ahead, the road twisted and dipped between unpopulated ridges of dark woodland and stretches of wild heath daubed with streaks of yellow gorse before dwindling into the murk.

Presently, in the way that often in those parts signals a change in the weather, it became very still. All the birds went quiet, even the huge red kites with their incongruous ­high-­pitched cries that had pursued him for miles. Chilly veils of sodden grey mist drifted across the moor and draped themselves around him, and for the first time since he set off early that morning he felt moved to pray aloud for protection to his name saint, who had borne the infant Christ on his back across the river.

After a while, the road began to ascend a wooded hillside. As it climbed, so it dwindled, until it was little better than a cart ­track—ridged brown earth covered loosely by stones, shards of soft blue slate and yellow gravel braided by the running rainwater. From the steep banks on either side rose the scent of wild ­herbs—lungwort, lemon balm, mustard ­garlic—while the overhanging branches drooped so low he had to duck and fend them off with his arm, dislodging further showers of fresh cold water that drenched his head and trickled down his sleeve. Something shrieked and flashed emerald in the gloom, and his heart seemed to jump halfway up his throat, even though he realised almost at once that it was nothing more sinister than a common parakeet. He shut his eyes in relief.

When he opened them again, he saw a brownish object up ahead. At first he mistook it for a fallen tree. He wiped his sleeve across his face and leaned forward in his saddle. A figure in a hessian smock, cowled like a monk, was pushing a handcart. He dug his knees into the flanks of his mount and urged her on. “God be with you!” he shouted down at the curious apparition. “I am a stranger here.”

The figure pushed ahead even harder, pretending not to have heard, so that he was obliged to pass it once again. This time he wheeled around to block the narrow lane. He noticed the cart was piled with wool bales. He loosened the neck strings of his cape. “I mean you no harm. Christopher Fairfax is my name.” He pulled down the wet fabric and lifted his beard to show the white cloth tied around his neck. “I am a man of God.”

A damp thin male face squinted up at him through the rain. Slowly and reluctantly the hood was drawn back to reveal a head entirely bald. Water ran off the shiny dome, upon the crown of which curved a ­blood-­coloured ­crescent-­shaped birthmark.

“Is this the road to Addicott St. George?”

The man scratched at his birthmark and screwed up his eyes as if making a great effort of memory. Eventually he said, “Ye means Adcut?”

Fairfax—dripping water, losing ­patience—answered, “Yes, very well, ­then—Adcut.

“No. There’s a fork, a ­half-­mile back. Ye needs t’take t’other.” The man looked him up and down. A knowing expression crept across his ­face—a slow, rural slyness, as if he were measuring a beast at market. “Ye’re young for the work.”

“And yet old enough, I think!” Fairfax forced a smile and bowed. “Peace be upon you.”

He tugged at the bridle and turned his elderly grey mare around, riding her carefully back down the watery track until he found the place where the road forked. It was almost impossible to spot unless one had been warned to look for it. So those wretches in Axford had indeed been trying to get him ­lost—a trick they’d never have dared attempt had they known he was a priest. He ought to tell the local sheriffs. Yes, on his way home he would do exactly that. He would bring the whole weight of the law down upon their stupid rustic ­numbskulls—imprisonment, a fine, a day in the stocks being pelted by stones and shit . . .

This second track was even steeper. Ancient trees on either side, already in full leaf, leaned in no more than a couple of yards above his head as if to confer. Their entwined branches shut out the light. Inside this dank tunnel night seemed already to have fallen. His horse skittered and refused to carry him further. He wrapped his arms around her neck and whispered in her ear, “Come on, May!” But she was a grumpy beast, stubborn with age, more mule than horse, and in the end he had to dismount and lead her.

On foot, he felt even more vulnerable. He had twenty pounds in his purse for expenses, counted out a coin at a time by the Dean the previous evening, and many were the travellers who had been murdered for half as much. His boots slithered in the mud as he dragged at the bridle. Oh, but this was a fine joke, he thought bitterly. The bishop might rarely smile, but that did not mean he entirely lacked a certain sense of humour. To send a man off thirty miles, to the furthest edge of the diocese, on such an errand, and on a ­clapped-­out horse . . .

He pictured his colleagues gathering for their customary early ­supper—seated on the long benches in the chapter house in front of the huge fire, the bishop bowing his narrow grizzled head to say grace, his face in the blaze still the colour of an oyster, a flicker of malicious merriment in those small dark eyes. “And lastly we pray for our brother in Christ, Christopher Fairfax, serving our holy mother the Church tonight . . . in a ­far-­off land!”

Some wretched nearby brook seemed to gurgle with laughter.

But then, just as he was despairing, a pale glow appeared at the end of the overgrown ­lane and after a few more minutes of weary dragging, he emerged into what was left of the day’s light to discover himself on the crest of a hill. To his right the land fell away sharply. Small fields with low ­dry-­stone walls enclosed a scattering of cows, sheep and goats. Ramshackle wooden stalls had been weathered by the winter to the colour of pewter. At the bottom of the valley, about a mile distant, was a river with a bridge. Next to it, a small settlement of mostly thatched roofs was centred around a square stone church tower. Here and there, feathery lines of ­white-­grey smoke rose and bled into the darker grey of the sky. The clouds above the enclosing hills were low and racing, like waves fleeing a storm out at sea. It had stopped raining. He fancied he could smell the chimneys. He imagined light, warmth, company, food. In the wet fresh evening air his spirits revived. Even May’s mood improved sufficiently that she consented to let him remount her.

It was nearly dark by the time they trotted into the centre of the village. May’s shod hooves clattered over the arched stone bridge that spanned the river and splashed along the muddy narrow street. His high vantage point enabled him to peer into the whitewashed cottages on either side. Some had small front gardens with white wooden fences. Most opened directly on to the road. In a couple of windows, candles glowed; in one, he glimpsed the full pale moon of a face, quickly eclipsed by a curtain. He halted at the lychgate 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. Wrapped around the middle of the flagpole on the top of the tower, the red and white standard of England and St. George hung damply at ­half-­mast.

On the far side of the graveyard, beyond the wall, was a tumbling ­two-­storey building with a thatched roof. On the threshold, now that he looked more closely, he could just make out the gaunt figure of a woman dressed in black, holding a lantern, watching him. For a few moments they regarded one another across the lichened tombstones. Then she lifted the light a little and moved it back and forth. He raised his hand, spurred the mare and rode around the perimeter of the churchyard towards the waiting figure.

 

Chapter 2

Father Fairfax makes the acquaintance of Father Thomas Lacy


She took him upstairs to see Father Lacy right away. He barely had time to lay down his bag in the passage, shed his dripping cape and pull off his muddy boots before he was following her, stiff and ­bowlegged from his hours in the saddle, up the narrow wooden staircase to the landing.

Over her shoulder she informed him that she was Mrs. Agnes Budd, housekeeper, and that she had been watching out for him all day. Beneath her deference he detected an undertone of reproach.

He had to dip his head to pass through the low doorway. The bedchamber was cold and smelled of chloride of lime. The window was open wide to the bluish dusk; on the floorboards beneath its leaded panes, the rain had puddled. A black coffin lid was propped against a chest of drawers. The coffin itself was on the bed. Candles stood on the nightstands on either side of the heavy wooden bed frame, along with a book and a pair of spectacles, as if the dead man had just finished reading. The flames of the candles flickered in the draught.

Cautiously he approached the coffin and peered down. The corpse was long and thin, packed in sawdust and bound up tight in a papery white linen shroud, like a chrysalis ready to hatch. A white lace handkerchief covered the face. He glanced at the housekeeper. She nodded. He took the two upper corners of the handkerchief between his thumbs and forefingers and lifted it away.

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