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Harris starts to return to form after the disaster that was "Archangel"
on August 19, 2006
Pompeii marks the partial return to form of Robert Harris, who burst onto the scene a few years ago with the magnificent "Fatherland". He followed that with "Enigma", another thriller set in World War Two which was interesting but flawed, and then produced the absolutely appalling "Archangel". I've had "Pompeii" on my shelves for a while now, not daring to read the book in case it also turned out to be a stinker. I finally read it a few days ago and am glad that I did.
If you're going to set a book in the few days before Vesuvius explodes, the main challenge is to produce a narrative which can engage the reader who knows perfectly well that the volcano is about to extinguish Pompeii, Herculaneum and other nearby towns, ending life in the region. "Pompeii" tells the story of the young water engineer Marcus Attilius, who is given his job after his veteran predecessor disappears. Soon there is a break in the Aqua Augusta, the immense viaduct which brings water to several towns near Vesuvius. Attilius is charged with first finding and then fixing the disruption but runs into big and potentially fatal problems when it becomes clear his investigations will pose all sorts of embarrassing problems for the local elite.
As ever, Harris writes exceedingly well. He has done his research and you can feel the sweat running down the backs of the overworked labourers in the shadows of the volcano, hear the insects buzzing all around and smell the ancient and exceedingly expensive wine offered to pompeii's luminaries. The main problem with the book is that Attilius never really comes to life. He is an honest young man pitched into a sea of corruption, someone trying to forget the recent death of his young wife, yet he stays largely on the page, rarely engaging the reader. That said, "Pompeii" is worth reading for the description of the volcanic blast alone.