26 March, 2006

Pompeii, by Robert Harris. Book review.

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 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 inventing the scandal in the first place. I personally 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 a few 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.

By pure chance - believe me - BBC2 is showing a one-hour documentary on Pompeii at 9pm on Friday 31st March (if you happen to live in the UK).


Rick said...

Having an engineer as the protagonist is nifty! - engineering was after all one of the Romans' great achievements, and we can infer something about the engineers as well as their work from Vitruvius and Frontinus, but I haven't heard of them figuring much in fiction before.

A major natural disaster does tend to sweep any prior plot aside - that is why disaster stories usually just have a soap opera plot till the disaster hits.

Bernita said...

The chapter headings/quotations are particularly intriguing.
Have always liked those.

Carla said...

Rick - Pliny the Elder is given a line to that effect in the novel, saying that politicians talked about empires, soldiers conquered them, but it was the engineers - the men who laid out the towns and made the roads and dug the aqueducts - who actually built them.

Bernita - I like the quotations too, and it's not something you often see nowadays. Certainly confirms he read some quite hefty tomes on volcanology.

Gabriele Campbell said...

Hm, now I have two pretty different opinions about the book. Yours and some remarks by the German writer Iris Kammerer (a specialist for the old Romans) who said she found the book not only too modern in style, but also the characters acting and thinking too modern. Like some US thriller put into Pompei 79 AD. So far, her analysis kept me from reading it because historical (fictive or real) characters acting out of time is one of my peeves.

Carla said...

Depends what she meant by characters acting and thinking in ways that are too modern. There certainly are motivations that wouldn't be out of place in a modern thriller - Ampliatus is greedy and ruthless, the local town politicians are corrupt, Attilius the engineer is the honest man who won't take bribes. I personally didn't have a problem with any of this, because it seems to me that ancient Rome had plenty of civic corruption and bent politicians, plenty of greedy and ruthless landlords, a financial and commercial system sufficiently complex that it could accommodate the scam in the plot, and presumably had some honest and practical engineers or none of the infrastructure would have worked. Attilius can be accused of being an atheist because his approach to a broken aqueduct is to find the problem and fix it rather than to sacrifice a white bull to Pluto - but that isn't really atheism in my view, and Rome must have had plenty of men like that or nothing would ever have been built or repaired. Corelia isn't a feminist and instead of running away with her, Attilius tells her it's her duty to go back to her father's house and marry a rich man of her father's choosing. So I'd say - yes, the foreground plot is pure thriller, but the social and cultural background fits with what I know of the period in general and the excavations at Pompeii in particular. Now, I am not an expert on first-century Rome by any means, and I may very well be wrong.
Any more opinions or reviews out there?

ali said...

This is a book I've started but never finished. For some reason I never really got into it, and I think I ended up putting it down because of another, more interesting book that had just come out :).

I keep meaning to finish it, because I've quite liked some of his other books - Archangel and Enigma (which is so much better than the film).

Alex Bordessa said...

I wasn't particularly struck by any modern-day attitudes in the story either. The quotes from the volcano books are modern, of course, so that the author runs the risk of breaking the suspension of disbelief at every chapter heading.

Anonymous said...

Yes, the Romans certainly were engineers. I still remember the sense of wonder I felt as a boy when I learned that they bridged the Rhine on the way to Germany. When they came to the river, they simply went into the forest, cut wood, and built the bridge, held together by lashing and pegs. I can still hardly believe it. I wouldn't dare invent a feat like that in a piece of fiction...not credible.

Carla said...

Ali - if you gave up part way through you missed the eruption of Vesuvius, which I thought was the best bit.

Alex - the quotations do remind you of the modern world because no-one at the time would have known anything about what was going on in the volcano - which is brought out in the novel. In some ways they also act as a sort of countdown to the eruption (not that I suppose many readers need to be reminded of what's about to happen).

jta - Roman engineering feats awe me as well. I think that was probably one of the reasons I liked this novel, because it centred on the engineering and gave it due credit for a change.

Sarah Cuthbertson said...

I enjoyed Pompeii and thought Robert Harris made good use of stuff from original Roman sources, and like others here I was thrilled by his use of an engineer as protagonist. He seems to be hooked on ancient Rome now and is publishing a novel about Cicero in September, which purports to be the biography of Cicero by his secretary Tiro which was lost in the Dark Ages. What a whizzo idea! I'm looking forward to that. There's something about it on Amazon here

I've enjoyed Steven Saylor's Gordianus novels featuring Cicero, Sulla, Caesar etc.