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Tuesday, February 10, 2004

A Book Review

Pompeii by Robert Harris

I picked this book up in hardbook in the Xmas sales, mostly because I had just been paid and it was selling half-price, and I had WHSmith vouchers to spend. I had just read it in the last couple of days.

This book was a very easy book to read, I managed to read it cover to cover in one sitting in about 2 1/2 hours on Sunday evening. It is 356 pages long in hardback, which means I was reading it at amount the limit of my capacity. Its not quite the fastest I've ever read anything (that remains LoTR last year for the 20-somthing time). The UK cover is nice and restrained, and typeface good, and there is a nice map of the Bay of Naples.

The story is, of course, the Vesuvian eruption. The book begins a couple of days before, and continues up to the 4th pyroclastic flow of the eruption, the one that destoryed Pompeii. The story is well-written, but I found it ultimately did not compare to Fatherland or Enigma, the other two novels by Robert Harris that I have read. It is certainly enjoyable, pleasant entertainment, but nothing more than that.

I think the problem comes with issues of characterisation - the 'main' character simply does not come across very clearly. I got the feeling he was more of just a conduit for our eyes and ears rather than a real character at all. The best developed characters were, without a doubt, Pliny the Elder and, perhaps somewhat unlikely, the Via Augusta aqueduct. In some respects his portrayal of the aquaduct was one of the great things about this book.

As for the eruption itself, Robert Harris concentrates at first on the actions of Pliny the Elder. This is more than understandable, and those scenes are some of the best written in the book. Indeed, Harris was at his best here describing the historical facts, and not so good with the more fictional elements. His handling of Pompeii's final moments was restrained and tasteful, though the very end left me somewhat unsatisfied.

However, there was one character in all this I felt to be missing: Pompeii itself. It is not that Pompeii is ignored, but that the city is never more than a place to be. We see only a very small selection of its inhabitants, directly connected to the plot (not the eruption), and therefore the masses of people remain amorphous blobs.

I suppose my final summing up (and I am thinking aloud here) is that this is a book that wants to sound like Stalingrad or Berlin by Anthony Beevor, but failing because of the fiction. An evening's entertainment, but nothing more.

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