The Second Sleep, by Robert Harris

by
29 November 2019

Gabriel Byng considers a dystopia in which the C of E calls the shots

THANKS to political events that hardly need recounting, dystopias are having a time in the sun. Robert Harris’s latest novel is a gripping contribution to this cultural moment, looking, like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, towards the tensions between religion and liberalism. His book is set in the 15th century — not the one 600 years ago, but the one that will take place in a millennium’s time, once our own civilisation has collapsed.

In Harris’s universe, the Church of England is resurgent, possessing the political and spiritual monopoly of the medieval Church, although it has clung on to its 17th-century prayer book and 19th-century hymnals. Petrol engines, electricity, and decimal currency have disappeared; most people are peasants; and religion is an oppressive, punitive force. It is, in other words, not far from the 19th-century fantasy of the medieval “Dark Ages”.

The detail is entertaining rather than fully worked out — why does everybody learn Latin if they use BCP services? Is a vernacular Bible compatible with such an autocratic Church?

The plot is good whydunnit fare: a country parson is found dead in mysterious circumstances, and a wet-behind-the-ears priest is sent to investigate. The locals, speaking a Hardy-ish dialect, receive him with hostility. He meets the appealing lady of the manor — no prizes for guessing what happens here — and a loutish self-made type who, it transpires, has a heart of gold. The story is told with the tense plotting that any Harris fan would expect.

But what of Harris’s dystopia? Unlike The Handmaid’s Tale, it is hard to see what strains of contemporary culture Harris is suggesting will come back to bite us: Anglicanism hardly feels like a malign cultural force on the path to world domination. There is a somewhat liberal secularist flavour to this vision. The Church, for example, is violently opposed to “scientism”, while the north has become a caliphate.

The cause of our civilisation’s sudden demise is a murky affair: something to do with too much digitalisation and interdependence. Most evocative is what survives of us: the characters are for ever turning up our plastic and glass, black rectangles with a bitten-Apple symbol, and never our books or ideas.

Dr Gabriel Byng is a research fellow and director of studies at Clare Hall, Cambridge. He is the author of Church Building and Society in the Later Middle Ages (CUP, 2017).

The Second Sleep
Robert Harris
Hutchinson £20
(978-1-78-633137-3)
Church Times Bookshop £18

Church Times Bookshop

Save money on books reviewed or featured in the Church Times. To get your reader discount:

> Click on the “Church Times Bookshop” link at the end of the review.

> Call 0845 017 6965 (Mon-Fri, 9.30am-5pm).

The reader discount is valid for two months after the review publication date. E&OE

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Forthcoming Events

21-22 February 2020
Church Times Festival of Faith and Literature
With Sam Wells, Catherine Fox, Mark Oakley, Suzannah Lipscomb and many others. 
See the full programme

26 March 2020
Theology Slam Live Final
Theology Slam is back, continuing its search for the most engaging young voices on theology and the contemporary world. Find out more

Welcome to the Church Times

​To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read five articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)