Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Book Review [2015:9] Pompei by Robert Harris

416 pages

There are some books that I happily return to time and again. I even have some books that I purposefully read once a year because of their feel-good factor. Since I have embarked on a book challenge for 2015, you will no doubt be hearing about some of those books throughout this year. 

I haven't read Pompeii since the first time I read it in 2007. I couldn't normally specify the year that I read a book but this particular one sticks in my memory as I was incredibly fortunate to fulfil a lifetime ambition to visit Pompeii and Herculanium later that same year (actually I was pretty disturbed when we were there that the water stopped flowing). This was the first Robert Harris book I read, and led to one of my classic back catalogue read-a-thons, and the firm foundation of Harris as one of my favourite authors. 

Thus it was that I very happily picked this book from the shelf to reread (not least because I needed a pick-me-up after the disaster that was The Shock of The Fall). The plot follows Marcus Attilius, the aquarius of the Aqua Augusta, the greatest aquaduct in the world, supplying the bay of Naples with its drinking water. He is an engineer, brought in after the mysterious disappearance of the aquarius, who's interest lies only in determining the cause of the sudden loss of water in the towns around Vesuvius. He is dragged into a mystery and witness of the if the greatest natural disaster of the Roman world. 

It's a beautiful description of Roman life. In the UK, the Romans are a huge part of school life, a topic that tends to be covered multiple times in your school career, and as such it's so easy (as with much of history) to view the people that lived in that time as very 'other'. Harris' skill lies in creating a window into a world that is very much like our own, and is peopled with men and women just like us. Understanding how the average person would react to a sudden unexpected total destruction if life as we know it makes for compelling reading. The journey of the aquarius from visiting engineer, to sole prophet of oncoming disaster, to Pliny's right-hand-man, to lone broken shell of a man attempting to survive something incomprehensible is incredibly involving. For those interested in what it must have been like to closely observe this disaster, Harris works Pliny's observations of the 'manifestation' into the story, and begins each chapter with explanations from volcanology textbooks. 
This is a must-read book.

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