Robert Harris’ POMPEII
A book review by Dennis D. McDonald
It’s late Summer in 79 AD. Atilius, a young Roman civil engineer, is sent to Pompeii from Rome to take over management of the giant aqueduct that feeds water to the cities surrounding the Bay of Naples near Vesuvius. The previous engineer has disappeared. Now the water supplies in the area, fed by the aqueduct, are behaving strangely. Some are emitting the smell of sulfur and some sources have shut down altogether. Meanwhile, tremors in the earth are increasing in frequency.
Atilius set out to find out what’s happening. He is soon enmeshed in local politics and discovers corruption in high places. Geological portents occur he does not know how to interpret.
The reader knows what’s happening. It’s only four days before the devastating eruption of Vesuvius that wipes out Pompeii and much of the life surrounding it.
Author Harris tells the story in countdown fashion as the famous eruption, fixed in time for all eternity, approaches. This is quite a different novel from the author’s Cicero trilogy (Imperium, Conspirata, and Dictator). There the focus was power politics and political intrigue. Here the focus is narrower: a countdown to disaster. We suspect that many of the people we meet throughout the book will be dead by the last page when Vesuvius finally explodes.
Despite our knowing what is going to happen the author successfully maintains mystery and tension as we approach the fateful hour. Partly this is because we understand the significance of the portents. The novel’s characters do not but we share with some of them a palpable sense of dread that something awful is about to happen.
And happen it does. The hellish experience of those who lived through or died in Vesuvius’ multi-day eruption is rendered by the author with uncanny clarity, directness, and terror. It begins with an on the ground view of the nightmarish summit of Vesuvius shortly before its eruption and extends through a detailed experience of what it was like to be in the middle of the horrible rain of pumice and ash on land and sea as materials spewed kilometers into the sky crash back to earth and its doomed inhabitants.
The reader is left with a realization that, were such a disaster to befall us today, the likely impact might be even worse despite our modern technologies. In the face of such a calamity what would make perfect sense is the terrible lamentation, “The gods have a abandoned us!“ just as they abandoned the victims in Pompeii.
Review copyright © 2019 by Dennis D. McDonald