Thursday, August 03, 2006


Even before I started reading Robert Harris’ Pompeii, I couldn’t help but draw comparisons with the movie “Titanic.” Both face the same challenge: how do you hold the attention of the audience when they already know the ending? In Titanic, you know the boat’s gonna to sink, and in Pompeii, you know the mountain’s gonna go BOOM! and wipe out everything around it.

Our hero for this book is the young engineer Attilius. He’s been placed in charge of the aqueduct that supplies the area surrounding Pompeii and the natural disaster-to-be of Vesuvius. The events leading up to this infamous eruption disrupt the flow of water through the Aqua Augusta, and as Attilius puts his brief career on the line, he fights to repair the aqueduct and keep the water flowing. Along the way, he makes an enemy of a freed slave who has become a self-made man of wealth named Ampliatus who is more crook than honest businessman.

The majority of the book takes place before the eruption, and that might be the greatest weakness in this book. Throughout Pompeii, Harris introduces each chapter with a scientific quote that explains why the events in the chapter are a warning of the eruption to come (during the eruption, these quotes are used to forewarn the reader of the dangers to come within each chapter). Harris definitely deserves praise for finding a very clever way of taking these concepts and making them fit within the structure of his story.

From a scientific standpoint, it’s fascinating to see these subtle hints within nature, none of which anyone notices until it’s too late. The problem is that the reader does know. Ampliatus’ criminal schemes are turned all the more petty and even laughable in light of the destruction the reader knows will follow. As likeable as Attilius is, I found his gutsy struggle to repair the Aqua Augusta in one day and restore water to the towns for which it provides a bit difficult to care about. Even before it erupts, Vesuvius basically renders moot all the political intrigue within the city of Pompeii, and that’s not good when the eruption doesn’t start until two-thirds of the way into the book.

There is plenty to like here, though. Harris deserves praise for not resorting to the stereotypical approach to these disaster stories, which usually demands a character warning everyone that they’re all going to die but goes ignored to the downfall of all. Instead Attilius is no different than any other character in the book. He’s ignorant of the coming disaster until the moment it’s upon them, even though he is witness to almost all the warning signs.

In the end, the most compelling part of the book is when we see the destruction of society, not by the fires of Vesuvius, but by normal people faced with disaster. Yet, it was this part that I found most difficult to read. As I read of a child’s unanswered cries for its parents amid the destruction, I had to put the book down for a moment. As a father, the idea was just too unsettling, but only because the idea is all too real.

Would I recommend this book? Yes.

Harris offers up a very ambitious story. While he stumbles in some areas, for the most part he succeeds. Perhaps this book’s greatest strength is in how real Harris makes the setting and characters. His research shows, even as he reminds us that people haven’t changed all that much in two thousand years.

Other Books by Robert Harris:

The next book I'm reading is in preparation for the James River Writers Conference, and as luck would have it, the story is rather timely. I’m reading Operation Smokeout by Anthony P. Jones. What makes this book so timely is that it focuses on a plot involving Cuban leader Fidel Castro. For those not keeping up with the news, Castro was recently hospitalized and handed over temporary control of that country to his brother while he recovers. Should make for some very interesting and entertaining reading.

1 comment:

Sandra Ruttan said...

Pompeii sounds interesting. Thanks for all those thoughts on it.