Conclave – Robert Harris

I’m going to spoil this book, and that is me doing you a favor.

You’ve been warned.



I watched someone read this book over the course of just a few days. When the person was finished with the book it was handed over to me with the usual adulation (“You just gotta read it!”), though I matched the kindness with a look of skepticism. I don’t normally go for thrillers. “Is it any good?” I asked.

“It was OK,” I was told. “But that ending! What a twist!”

No other words make me distrust someone’s recommendation than talk about the ending. I’ve taken it to mean ‘Hey, why don’t you come over for a ten course meal of pure shit, only to get a tasty breath mint on the way out?’ I well and truly could do without. I also well and truly don’t understand the appeal of twist endings.  Particularly, as it turns out to have been with this book, when the twist ending isn’t a twist at all.

I frowned, but politely agreed. I had no desire to read this schlocky page turner. But the relationships you foster are sometimes built on a degree of sacrifice, and I decided to read it, if for no other reason except to make this person happy. So the next morning I picked the book up and read about the first fifty pages. I then threw the book onto the reading pile, a pile from which I always pull things from the bottom.  It had failed to muster my attention very well for that morning, and frankly I had more important things to read.

But a guilty conscience remind me of it from time to time, and ultimately I decided to force my way through it.

It was every shade of disappointing I had imagined it to be, plus one more. While I had been forcing myself, I was constantly asking myself what the twist ending could possibly be (and if you ever find yourself greatly disappointed by a twist ending and you can’t really establish why, consider the possibility that in telling you that there was a twist ending the person who said as much spoiled it for you. That knowledge forces you into paying more attention to the details of the narrative, where normally you would merely gloss over things. Not to make to broad a generalization, but I would hazard that were that the case, the twist is not terribly good to begin with). When it finally came, it turned out to be the only let down I didn’t see coming.

Robert Harris’ Conclave is the story of the meeting of the Cardinals of the catholic church who, after the death of the current pope, have convened to elect the next one. It follows the intrigue of a select few of their number as these men scheme to get themselves elected as next emissary of Christ on Earth. The schemes of these men fail, a recently ordained cardinal, something of an outsider in this group, is elected. As it were, this individual had been born with a genetic disorder that had everyone misidentify their gender. Through no malicious intent (the individual in question had never discovered their misgendering until very late in life, and at that point they had been a ‘man’ so long as to not really know how to continue any other way), the cardinals had just elected the first female pope. That was the twist.

It isn’t just my clinical description of the book that highlights its failure. The book well and truly was that dull. And as expressed earlier, the twist was really no twist at all. All literature exists to create (or recreate) an emotion within the reader. Twist endings attempt to create the expectation of shock when reality goes counter to what you were expecting. But do not get this confused with mere surprise, similar to the sensation one feels when they are startled.

Twist endings seemed to reach a zenith within the zeitgeist with the release of the film Fight Club, though such endings existed much earlier than that. My first encounter with concepts like these started in a seventh grade English class that spent some time looking at the work of O. Henry, and O. Henry is largely considered a master of this kind of irony. Due in large part to the failures of eight grade literary teachers and Alanis Morissette, people seem to have a poor understanding of how this irony works. Sure, counter expectations are a part of it but what needs to be dispelled is the notion that these stories function on mere misdirection alone, as opposed to a very specific, controlled form of misdirection that is buttressed against the story’s existing themes. This becomes very clear to us if we were to take a story with a famous twist ending and insert any other ending upon it, no matter how far from left field. We can re-imagine The Last Leaf to be a story wherein once the artist has recovered from the pneumonia they go outside and are serendipitously killed by a Looney-Tunes style falling grand piano. Apropos of nothing at all, Tyler Durden could have been the anti-Christ. In David Fincher’s Se7en, from the box that the serial killer leaves for the two detectives could escape an unspeakable eldritch horror. All of these endings would be misdirections of some kind and I am sure you would not have seen any of them coming. But they all fail because the misdirections are merely arbitrary, and do not connect one way or the other with the narrative of the story.

So what then specifically went wrong with Conclave? The story was never about gender. It was barely about religion. The story could be translated into another setting and it would have worked equally well from a narrative point of view, but the twist ending would have been sheer nonsense. Consider, had the story been about the ambitions of various members of a massive corporations board of director, with various members trying to elect themselves to a powerful CEO position.  We could also make every character in that story female and have the elected CEO ultimately be male. Nothing in that makes for a gripping read, and the twist feels equally cheap. What Conclave does give us if some dialogue about the conservative vs liberal nature of the papacy and the impact of individual popes on various policies, with some ideas that the characters within the story are looking to shake things up. But again, none of this speaks to the idea of gender. The narrative did not break my expectations, but rather broke some of my initial assumptions regarding and blind faith acceptance of certain conventions. I can’t say to have been paying attention for the discourse of gender within the story (by fault of the narrative – in that it gave me no reason to), and this is why my reaction to the end was merely a “Huh, ok.” I had no reason to see the ending coming. I also had no reason not to accept it. it was a complete non-sequitur.  It would have been as impactfull had this character turned out to be a Martian.

What would it have taken for all of this to have worked? It is very hard to say. Any number of things could lead the characters in the story to the discourse of gender. An examination as to why the position of pope must be male, through an exploration of the myth of pope Joan? (No, too hamfisted…)

New textual evidence that suggested that the figure of Jesus might have been a woman after all? (also hamfisted…)

The conclave meeting in the backdrop of a controversial female figure of a protestant sect, making waves through a largely and increasingly secular Europe?

It is pointless to go through the exercise. What would make the ending deserved or not would be the themes the story resonating on the road to the story’s conclusion. But it must be a conclusion that, in some way, works within the story itself. Otherwise it’s pointless at best.

Frankly, I have no idea. And I am happy this way.

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