by Robert Harris
Published 2003. Edition reviewed, Hutchinson 2003, ISBN 0091779251.
Pompeii is a thriller set in the Roman city of Pompeii, at the time
of its destruction by the volcanic eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD. Pliny the
Elder is a real historical figure who features in a cameo role, and the other
main characters are fictional.
Attilius is an aqueduct engineer transferred from Rome to the Bay of Naples at the height of a drought, sent as an emergency replacement for the previous engineer who has mysteriously disappeared. While trying to repair the vital aqueduct that provides drinking water to the towns around the bay, Attilius comes into conflict with a shady property tycoon, the freed slave and self-made man Ampliatus. Attilius discovers a financial scandal that puts his life in danger, and finds himself drawn to Ampliatus' daughter Corelia. Meantime, Vesuvius is restless and the coming eruption will eclipse all previous concerns.
I liked a lot of things about this book. The central character, Attilius, is a sympathetic figure, a decent, honest, practical man whose primary concern is to keep his aqueduct working. I found it a refreshing change to have an engineer as the hero of a thriller, rather than a spy, a detective or a military type. Attilius' job and the structure of the water system are integral to the plot and, as far as I know, historically accurate. I also liked the focus on the commercial and financial aspects of Roman society; there is a real sense of Pompeii as a bustling boom town full of people on the make. Corelia has a mind of her own, and her romance with Attilius fits within the social conventions of the time.
The thriller plot is well-constructed and rattles along with never a dull moment, but what lifts this book beyond the ordinary is the superb description of the Vesuvius eruption. Robert Harris prefaces each chapter with a quotation describing the geophysics going on in the volcano at the time, and his account of events matches what I know of the science. Unlike an earthquake, which is over in minutes, the eruption went on for over 24 hours. People had no idea what was happening or how (or, indeed, if) it would end, and had to make choices about what to do. Should they run away? How, with the roads clogged feet deep in shifting pumice? And where to? What about their property and belongings? Or should they stay and try to ride it out, with flat roofs collapsing under the weight of ash and pumice? If you've ever read accounts of the eruption at Pompeii and tried to imagine what it would be like in a city with the houses buried in ash to first-floor height, or tried to visualise the awesome destructive power of a pyroclastic flow, this book brings it vividly to life.
There are a few things that I thought didn't work well. A few gratuitous sex scenes add little if anything to the plot, but are easily skipped. The volcanic cataclysm sweeps the rest of the plot aside and renders the corruption and financial scandal irrelevant, which may make some readers wonder whether there was any point to putting it in the story in the first place. I didn't mind that, because Vesuvius would have interrupted all manner of lives and events.
I found Pompeii a fast, easy read in modern prose and with modern dialogue, free of glaring anachronisms (none that annoyed me, at least). I happen to like this style, but some people may dislike it as too 'modern'. I should perhaps also warn that there are one or two uses of modern expletives. The characters are immediately recognisable as sympathetic or not, and on the whole there is not very much complexity or character development. I didn't find this a problem, but some readers may consider the characters to be one-dimensional.
A rattling good yarn that will also painlessly teach you a lot about volcanology, first-century Pompeii and Roman water engineering.
Pompeii is the only historical novel I know of to have attracted the
attention of the Guardian's splendidly satirical Digested
Read column. You can read his take on it here.