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by Robert A. Harris
Random House, November 2003
304 pages
ISBN: 0679428895

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

In POMPEII Robert Harris has given us a detailed account of the destruction that resulted from the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. His vehicle for this story is a young engineer named Atillius who has been dispatched by Rome to replace the aqueduct engineer who had tended to the water needs of the region for decades and who has recently mysteriously disappeared.

As the story opens, Atillius is faced with many challenges: not only is his predecessor missing and his new team openly resentful of his authority, the water which is carried to the region by the Aqua Agusta aqueduct also seems to be drying up. The fountains that supply the cities and villages of the area have slowed to trickles, and the local politicos are concerned that popular unrest may result from a sustained water shortage.

The characters in the story are representative types rather than fully fleshed-out, living beings. Ampliatus exemplifies the greed and cruelty of the oppressed who achieve power. His daughter, Corelia, is Atillius's nominal love interest and she is vested with the conscience that Ampliatus lacks. Pliny the Elder plays the careful observer of nature who expands the narrative as he reflects on the phenomenon he witnesses on those fateful days before the eruption. Of all the characters in the story, Harris has succeeded best in bringing Pliny to life. When the corpulent old admiral appears in the narrative the writing improves substantially.

Throughout the book the narrative is oddly distanced. The characters have not been sufficiently developed to engage our sympathies, leaving the reader with an incomplete sense of the terror of the catastrophe. There is history here, though, for the reader with the patience to over-look the creakiness of the plot, and Harris has succeeded at portraying Roman times competently. The details of the aqueduct provide a fresh and inventive angle on the story and are the strength of the book.

One could only wish that Harris had also provided more than a rudimentary plot and peopled it with better-developed characters. Indeed, the ending of the book is so weak that I couldn't help but wonder whether Harris had himself lost interest in his characters once he'd finished with the story of the eruption.

Reviewed by Carroll Johnson, February 2004

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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