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Pompeii    by Robert Harris order for
by Robert Harris
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Random House, 2003 (2003)
Hardcover, Softcover, Paperback, Audio, CD, e-Book
* * *   Reviewed by G. Hall

British author Robert Harris has written several bestsellers previously, including Enigma, Fatherland and Archangel. Now he's created a thriller that takes readers to Pompeii in 79 AD just before and during the eruption of Vesuvius. This fast-paced tale centers on young aquarius (aqueduct engineer) Marcus Attilius Primus, who has been sent from Rome to take over the Aqua Augusta branch of the aqueduct system after the previous aquarius mysteriously disappears. This branch runs all along the Bay of Naples from Misenun on the ocean through Naples, Herculaneum, Pompeii and on to Sorrento. Above much of it towers Vesuvius. Shortly after his arrival, Attilius realizes that there is a serious problem with the aqueduct which is causing the water flow to stop. He sets out to investigate, along with a surly crew who resent the new boss. Soon he realizes that the problems are linked to Vesuvius, whose behavior becomes increasingly threatening as the hours pass.

Harris does a superb job of bringing the 1st century Roman setting to life. Often historical novels suffer from an excess of information that the research-loving author insists on including. Or else they have an anachronistic feel of modern life with the people dressed up in ancient clothing. But Pompeii feels real and down to earth. We learn about all aspects of Roman life, from the cruel lot of slaves, to urban politics and corruption, to the seamy side of brothel life. The book is populated with many memorable characters. Attilius is shown as an earnest, pragmatic young man who feels that 'senators might dream of empires; soldiers might conquer them; but it was the engineers, the fellows who laid down the roads and dug out the aqueducts, who actually built them, and who gave to Rome her global reach'. Through him we learn just enough about the fascinating aqueduct system and how it contributed to Roman civilization.

Former slave Ampliatus is depicted as a wicked man who now relishes his power and ability to inflict pain on others. He punishes a slave when the expensive fish in a fish farm under his care mysteriously die, by feeding the slave to flesh-eating eels and then later serving the eels for dinner. Seemingly without conscience, his cruelty extends even to his beautiful young daughter Corelia, who attracts the attention of lonely widower Attilius. The most interesting character of all is a real historical person, Pliny the Elder, the famous natural historian who left 160 invaluable volumes of his notes. When Vesuvius erupts, he insists on sailing from Misenum closer to the mountain to observe and take notes. 'Perhaps nature was granting him the privilege of witnessing something never before recorded in history'. With the bravery of an old man who feels himself 'nothing but a breathless sack of remembered impressions' he is present as the lava flows down to the beach and 'saw in her fires the futility of human pretensions'. Much of history's first hand observations of the eruption come from Pliny's writings.

Although we all know that Pompeii did catastrophically erupt, Harris is able to sustain great suspense as we follow Attilius through his search for the problem with the aqueduct, all the time fighting the trouble-making Ampliatus. Once the eruption does occur, we hold our breath to find out if he will survive and be able to save Corelia. Pompeii is a thriller in the best sense, with well-drawn characters and mesmerizing action. But its commentary on human nature makes it much more. We see parallels with modern times in the excessively materialistic lifestyles of the wealthy, who care nothing for the people who sustain their lives. And Attilius's thoughts resonate when he looks at a section of the aging aqueduct with crumbling brickwork clogged with weeds and feels that 'civilization was a relentless war that man was doomed to lose eventually'.

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