I resisted reading this new novel about Pompeii for some time. I am not sure why, for when I settled down to read it, I found it riveting.
Robert Harris’s Pompeii (304 pages, Random House, $15) tells the story of the great eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, which buried Pompeii and the nearby Herculaneum in ash and pumice. Harris centers his tale on Attilius, an engineer, who has been given the job of running the Augusta Aqueduct when its director has gone missing.
No sooner is he in position in the Bay of Naples than the Aqueduct shows signs of breaking down. Sulfurous pools and lowered reservoirs suggest that something is seriously amiss, and when he begins to investigate he realizes that he will have to divert the Aqueduct near Pompeii in order to look for the break and to make repairs.
He needs to persuade Pliny the Edler, the author and admiral, to help him with funds and supplies, and before long he is on his way to Pompeii, where he hopes to get local labor to help with the job. His foreman seems to be antagonistic, however, and his trip is fraught with difficulties not entirely explained by various earthquakes and strange natural events.
In Pompeii he is confronted with a wealthy autocrat, who is also a former slave, who seems to control everything that happens in Pompeii. Ampliatus runs the town, but he also has rigid control over his family. His daughter Corelia, someone Attilius has encountered earlier, is being forced into a marriage against her will, and when she sees Attilius negotiating with her father, she tries to let him know how wicked her father really is. When Attilius gets the men and equipment he requires, though, he passes through the gate of the city to meet up with the crew he has sent forward to find the break.
Once he has found and repaired the break in the aqueduct, his trouble has hardly begun. Just before he makes his way back, he meets Corelia, who has run away from home. He sends her back to Pompeii, sure that she is safer there than she is with him on the mountain. She leaves, but as she goes he wonders if he is doing the right thing.
Soon enough the mountain erupts, and an incredible description of the phases of destruction, much taken from actual records of such events, makes this compelling reading. As the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum are destroyed, Attilius makes his way to a ship that Pliny is planning to sail along the coast. Pliny wants to confront nature at its most violent and record what he sees in the depth of the firestorm. Needless to say, they do not get very far before being driven to shore.
From there they witness various stages of the volcanic eruption, each stage bringing even more devastation than the last.
In the midst of this violence, Attilius makes his way back to Pompeii in order to liberate Corelia from her father and attempt an escape before the storm of fire whips down the mountainside killing all in its path. This is chilling reading, as exciting as any thriller.
Harris has done a wonderful job of recreating the world of the Roman Empire and explaining what it was like to experience one of the greatest of natural disasters. This is a first rate novel.
Get Pompeii at Powell's, Vroman's or Amazon.