Waiting for white smoke

A review of Conclave by Robert Harris

The Pope is dead. The world's largest religion is lacking a shepherd in a most tumultuous time and the Church needs a steady hand to unite its various factions. It's the responsibility of Jacopo Lomeli to gather the cardinals of the Church into the conclave that will make this momentous decision, sealed away from the world in the Sistine Chapel until one of their brothers emerges as God's chosen. It's the most secretive of elections, a decision guided by the Holy Spirit that results in real world power.

This is the premise for Robert Harris' newest suspense novel Conclave. Lomeli, the dean of the college of cardinals, is tasked with ensuring the conclave runs smoothly. It could not come at a worse time. Lomeli struggles with his faith and views the coming election as certain to expose the rifts in the Church. It also soon becomes apparent that the late pope had several secrets he had kept from his cardinals, not the least of which is an unknown cardinal that appears at the last minute to take part in the conclave. And what of whispers about a leading candidate for the papacy? In his efforts to keep the conclave on track, Lomeli has to make a difficult choice: trust in the traditions of the Church and let the conclave proceed without interference, or trust his conscience to take steps that have never occurred during a papal election to avoid a future disaster for the Church? 

Harris obviously did a great deal of research into papal traditions and Vatican protocol, and much of the pleasure of Conclave is getting a sense of life among the Church's elite. None of the characters are meant to portray real people (the book seems to be set in 2018), but there are hints of individuals past and present to add realism. As the central character, Lomeli is well developed. His knowledge of Vatican politics and the frustrations of bureaucracy contrasts believably with the obvious love he has for the mission of the Church and desire to do right even if it might cost him his position--or even worse, get him elected pope. The final elements of plot might be stretching belief a bit--there were a few twists I didn't quite buy--but on the whole, Conclave is a compelling story of the uneasy combination of politics and faith, wrapped up in a suspenseful story that makes it hard to put down.