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Book club: The Second Sleep by Robert Harris

01 February 2024

Susan Gray reads The Second Sleep, a dystopian thriller by Robert Harris

AT FIRST glance, The Second Sleep is a historical thriller set in the late Middle Ages. Our guide to these grim days full of gibbets and corpses will be young, naïve, and, at times, priggish Fr Christopher Fairfax. Fairfax is a stickler for rules when we first meet him, and fears being caught out before curfew as he rides from Exeter to a remote Wessex village, Addicott St George, through rain and mist. His glimpse of a green parakeet and observation that the village church “had stood square on the land for a thousand years” offer the first signal we are not in medieval times, but in a dystopian future that resembles them.

Charged by the Bishop of Exeter, Richard Pole, to bury the late village priest Fr Thomas Lacy — “a simple task, but one that requires discretion” — Fairfax receives a guarded welcome from Lacy’s housekeeper. The moment he arrives “bow legged” from the 30-mile ride, Agnes marches him upstairs to see her late employer’s body, complete with greenish grey clay disguising head wounds. After a supper of rabbit and sheep’s-heart stew, Fairfax spends the night in the parsonage study, to be away from the smelly, putrefying corpse.

Awoken by noises outside his window, he sees the villagers moving around with lanterns. “In Exeter, the custom between the first and second sleep is to stick to our rooms,” he announces to the housekeeper in his undershirt, but Agnes informs him: “Nobody here gives much mind to curfews.” Travelling just 30 miles, the priest has become a stranger in a strange land.

The novel’s title comes from the American historian A. Roger Ekirche’s book At Day’s Close: Night in time’s past (2006), which argues that consolidated sleep only became the norm after the 1800s, owing to the Industrial Revolution and the spread of gas and electric lighting. Before then, sleep was biphasic, and the interval between the first and second sleep was used for many activities, including visiting, chatting, and praying.

Fairfax uses the interval to peruse Lacy’s bookshelves for inspiration for the next day’s eulogy, and discovers the now banned heretical series The Proceedings and Papers of the Society of Antiquaries, with Volume 20 missing. Discovering the missing text, together with a secreted parish register, opens a portal into the origins of the apocalypse that ushered in the non-technological, non-Enlightenment world of the novel. After the catastrophe wiping out of modern civilisation, the date was reset to 666, placing the action in the Year of Our Risen Lord 1468.

A perusal of Lacy’s collection of “treasures”, and reports from the Society of Antiquaries on excavations of a great road north of London, together with preserved aircraft parts, plants the seed in Fairfax’s mind that “the ancients”, with their communication devices marked by an apple with a bite taken from it, might not be as wicked or hubris ridden as the seminary proclaimed.

© Nick Gregan 2020Robert Harris, a bestselling novelist of award-winning historical thrillers

Over a breakfast of mutton and cheese Fairfax meets Rose, Agnes’s mute niece. With his head spinning from the deceased’s heretical library and a country-parson fantasy future with Rose, Fairfax is further blindsided at the funeral by russet-haired Lady Durston, “a person of quality” who carries herself upright and reads the lesson “faultlessly”. In her dark-green velvet tailored jacket and long skirt, she could have stepped out of a Pre-Raphaelite painting. Lady Durston’s pew companion Captain Hancock is one of the novel’s most resonant characters, and feels taken from life, with his minotaur build and love of his own voice, yet willing to commit himself to action.

From the funeral onwards, Fairfax is caught in groundhog day, where his daily resolutions to return to Exeter are continually thwarted by circumstances. He gets drunk at the wake and oversleeps, then he is asked to baptise an already dead baby in the dirt-poor Piggeries, and then a mudslide blocks the road out of the village.

As the village’s hold on Fairfax strengthens, the pace of the plot quickens, leading to two show-stopper final scenes, and a sequence of twists characteristic of the author. Events swiftly spiral out of control, and Fairfax finds himself having to question all his former certainties.

The Second Sleep’s establishment of a credible, shocking future is technically astounding, and the pace is gripping. Ultimately, it operates more as a novel of ideas than as fictionalising psychological or spiritual insight.

Susan Gray writes about the arts and entertainment for The Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Times, and the Daily Mail.

The Second Sleep by Robert Harris is published by Cornerstone at £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.99); 978-1-78746-096-6.

Listen to Susan Gray in conversation with Sarah Meyrick in this week’s Church Times podcast. This is a monthly series produced in association with the Church Times Festival of Faith and Literature. Listen here.



  1. Are the female characters as the male?
  2. Would it be fair to view natural forces, especially the weather and geology, as a main character in the novel?
  3. Is the appearance of Bishop Pole in the final pages a surprise?
  4. What is the effect of saving so many revelations for the end of the novel?
  5. What does the novel’s view of “the ancients” and the catastrophe tell us about the author’s concerns?
  6. The Church is portrayed as key to an oppressive dystopia. Is there room for more subtlety in Harris’s dissection of power?


IN OUR next Book Club on 1 March, we will print extra information about our next book, Before My Actual Heart Breaks by Tish Delaney. It is published by Cornerstone at £9.99 (£8.99); 978-1-78609-098-0.


Against the backdrop of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, Mary Rattigan’s dreams of emigrating to America are shattered when she finds herself pregnant at the age of 16. Mary’s strict Roman Catholic parents force her to marry a local farmer to minimise the shame that she has inflicted on the family. With flashbacks to her childhood, the story follows Mary’s marriage, one blighted by miscommunication, which is not helped by her lack of self-worth and past childhood trauma. Throughout the novel, the author’s prose captures the beauty of the sweeping countryside and farmland of Northern Ireland, and the use of the local vernacular adds authenticity to the book’s rural setting and to the raw emotions expressed.


Tish Delaney was born in Northern Ireland and grew up during the Troubles. Leaving County Tyrone to study at Manchester University, she remained in England afterwards to work as a reporter and sub-editor on various magazines and national newspapers in London. Leaving The Financial Times in 2014, she moved to the Channel Islands to start a career in writing. Her debut novel, Before My Actual Heart Breaks, won the Authors’ Club’s Best First Novel Award. In June 2022, her second book, The Saint of Lost Things, was published. The author still lives on Alderney, which she often describes as mini-Donegal.

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