Pompeii Paperback – Nov 2 2004
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Certain thriller writers burst upon the scene with considerable impact: Forsyth with The Day of the Jackal, Cruz Smith with Gorky Park and Robert Harris with the masterly Fatherland. Interestingly, of these three authors, by far the most consistent has been Harris, and his new novel, Pompeii is in some ways his most audacious offering yet, a brilliantly orchestrated thriller-cum-historical recreation that plays outrageous tricks with the reader's expectations.
As in the equally adroit Enigma, Harris takes a familiar historical event (there, the celebrated code-breakers at Bletchley Park, here the volcanic obliteration of an Italian city in AD79) and seamlessly weaves a characteristically labyrinthine plot in and around the existing facts. But that's not all he does here: few novelists who (unlike Harris) make a speciality of ancient history for their setting pull off the sense of period quite as impressively as the author does here. As the famous catastrophe approaches, we are pleasurably immersed in the sights, sounds and smells of the Ancient World, each detail conjured with jaw-dropping verisimilitude.
Harris's protagonist is the engineer Marcus Attilius, placed in charge of the massive aqueduct that services the teeming masses living in and around the Bay of Naples. Despite the pride he takes in his job, Marcus has pressing concerns: his predecessor in the job has mysteriously vanished, and another task is handed to Marcus by the scholar Pliny: he is to undertake crucial repairs to the aqueduct near Pompeii, the city in the shadow of the restless Mount Vesuvius. And as Marcus faces several problems--all life threatening--an event approaches that will make all his concerns seem petty.
Other writers have placed narratives in the shadow of this most famous of volcanic cataclysms, but Harris triumphantly ensures that his characters' individual dramas are not dwarfed by implacable nature; Marcus is a vividly drawn hero: complex, conflicted and a canny synthesis of modern and ancient mindsets. Some may wish that Harris might return to something closer to our time in his next novel, but few who take this trip into a dangerous past will be able to resist Harris's spellbinding historical saga. --Barry Forshaw --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
From Publishers Weekly
In this fine historical by British novelist Harris (Archangel; Enigma; Fatherland), an upstanding Roman engineer rushes to repair an aqueduct in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, which, in A.D. 79, is getting ready to blow its top. Young Marcus Attilius Primus becomes the aquarius of the great Aqua Augusta when its former chief engineer disappears after 20 years on the job. When water flow to the coastal town of Misenum is interrupted, Attilius convinces the admiral of the Roman fleet-the scholar Pliny the Elder-to give him a fast ship to Pompeii, where he finds the source of the problem in a burst sluiceway. Lively writing, convincing but economical period details and plenty of intrigue keep the pace quick, as Attilius meets Corelia, the defiant daughter of a vile real estate speculator, who supplies him with documents implicating her father and Attilius's predecessor in a water embezzlement scheme. Attilius has bigger worries, though: a climb up Vesuvius reveals that an eruption is imminent. Before he can warn anyone, he's ambushed by the double-crossing foreman of his team, Corvax, and a furious chase ensues. As the volcano spews hot ash, Attilius fights his way back to Pompeii in an attempt to rescue Corelia. Attilius, while possessed of certain modern attitudes and a respect for empirical observation, is no anachronism. He even sends Corelia back to her cruel father at one point, advising her to accept her fate as a woman. Harris's volcanology is well researched, and the plot, while decidedly secondary to the expertly rendered historic spectacle, keeps this impressive novel moving along toward its exciting finale.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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Top Customer Reviews
An impressive bibliography shows that the author knows the subject, however the story is drowned in a sea of endless descriptions that do nothing to push the story forward.
It is too bad, because there are many interesting aspects of some of the characters that could have been exploited better to humanize the story and transform this into a real adventure, but I almost had the impression that the author was in a rush to get rid of the storyline to get back to his beloved descriptions.
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.
The plot and the characters are mostly secondary devices. The important thing is that Harris paints a nice portrait of Roman life just before the eruption of Vesuvius, and makes us curious about what kind of havoc the volcano will wreck on the Roman towns and people that we've been reading about.
Even more interesting is the fact that Harris has obviously read all the Roman accounts he could of the eruption, and many of the little details about what happened, especially regarding Pliny, are taken from contemporary descriptions of the disaster.
Insofar as the eruption of Vesuvius and the destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum are concerned, we all know how the story ends. So it fell to Harris' skill as a writer to build and maintain momentum and suspense in spite of that. With the clever device of a brief excerpt from a scientific treatise on volcanism serving as a preface to every chapter plus absolutely scintillating descriptive writing, what might have been a monumentally boring exposition of the final few hours leading up to Vesuvius' cataclysmic eruption becomes rather a thrilling natural history page turner that actually had my stomach twisted up into knots as I felt the clock ticking toward the inevitable catastrophe!Read more ›
Most recent customer reviews
Robert Harris's usual excellent historical fiction. Fast paced and you learn a lot of contextual ancient history. A great read.Published 2 months ago by Richard Johnstone
The author uses English well, and if the reader enjoys authentically substantiated, historical fiction, this book is enjoyable. Read morePublished on May 9 2014 by Tamar
I did have to wonder how good a book would be when you know not only the ending but also quite a bit about the event before you start it. Read morePublished on March 21 2014 by Vanessa Wells
The book is based over 4 days leading up to the roman town pompeii and other surrounding towns get covered by the volcano, vesuvius. Read morePublished on March 25 2011 by Ben Nicholson
I liked this book. Gave a good description of Pompeii. Likable characters. Gripping plot. Easy enough to read. And a story that kept moving along. Read morePublished on June 7 2010 by NorthVan Dave