by Robert Harris
This is the third of Harris’ books I have read. He does not disappoint. This one was recommended to me by Pat Ranson, with whom I often discuss books and who has given me quite a few reading tips.
I downloaded the book on my Kindle. The story covers the two days before the eruption and the day of the eruption itself. Real characters appearing in the story include, of course, Pliny, who famously went out in a boat and wrote about the eruption as he watched it. But the main characters are Attilius, a young aqueduct engineer from Rome, recently moved to the Naples area, and Corelia, the daughter of Ampliatus, a rich and bullying former slave turned businessman.
The relationship between these two is somewhat extraneous to the story, and although it helps it to move along (and provides a love interest) the story would probably have worked just as well if the young woman had no part in it – though her father’s behaviour and brutality are based on true stories.
The story moves fast, and is all the more engaging because you, the reader, know what is going to happen. Each chapter begins with an explanation of the geological mechanisms as we now understand them; and the author manages to inspire our respect for the Romans who tried to understand these mechanisms with the knowledge available to them. Harris understands well that people were no less intelligent in ancient times to now. They try to fathom what is happening and offer various explanations as to why. Most tellingly, the former chief engineer was a native of the area of Etna on Sicily and Attilius comes to the conclusion that he anticipated the eruption before his untimely death on the volcano.
The geography of the book is beguiling; the more so when one has visited the area. I felt that I learned about Roman life, and in particular about naval life in that era. Until now I had never properly been able to visualise Pliny the Elder watching the eruption from a ship.
The bibliography is extensive, and after reaching the end of this novel I was prompted to reserve Mary Beard’s book on Pompeii from the library.