The Second Sleep

The Second Sleep

Robert Harris
ARRSE Rating
4 Mushroom Heads
This is the latest novel by Mr. Harris, but the first of his that I have read. It’s a historical novel, describing mediaeval life in a remote Exmoor village, with a Bishop based thirty miles away responsible for running life, ensuring conformance to the rules.

The year is 1468, and a young newly-qualified priest is sent to bury the Vicar of this village, who has fallen when digging for artefacts near a local landmark. So far, so hoopy, as Douglas Adams used to say.

On arrival, he finds much superstition around the Vicar’s death, much talk about his living arrangements, a beautiful young stable girl who does not speak, and a mystery to be solved. The young priest has to stay after the funeral to baptise a very sick child, and gets dragged slowly into village life. As the narrative winds on, and he meets more residents, discovering more about his predecessor’s obsession with collecting historical artefacts, old books and texts, the reader’s sense of context and time are challenged, with a gradual realisation that this is so much more than history as we know it today, and what at first seemed to be anachronisms or historical mistakes are indeed clues in the narrative.

The final chapter is quite shocking, and an interesting observation on the nature of humankind, which shouldn’t really have come as a surprise to this old cynic, and is, I think, a testament to how well-written the story is.

I really enjoyed this book, with its observations of human nature, rural life of the past, well-drawn characters and twisting plot. And whilst I know now that the second sleep is the good sleep you have after waking in the middle of the night, I think that the author's title is a very thought-provoking reflection on the story.

I also liked the reference to Thomas Hardy's 'Mayor of Casterbridge' at the beginning, with its description of the relics to be found when digging in the Dorchester area. Not a random choice by the author!

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