I got this book from the library when I went to reserve Enigma by the same author — a fictional biography of Alan Turing, the genius who led the team that cracked the Nazi naval code. I want to find out more about this enigmatic man and his life which ended in tragedy, after seeing the powerful film, The Imitation Game, with that flavour-of-the year actor, Benedict Cumberbatch, in it.
I don’t read much historical fiction, though I was so impressed by Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies and Wolf Hall that I read them twice, almost without stopping. They are very literary in their construction, in that the narrative voice and the characters are finely tuned and vividly imagined.
Pompeii is fiction of a different order. It is plot driven, and the characters are sketched in with light strokes, rather black and white. The hero, Attilius, is the water engineer or Aquarius who sets out to solve the mystery of the failure of fresh water springs in nine towns around the bay of Naples. The chief villain is the wealthy and corrupt ex-slave Ampliatus, who runs Pompeii and owns most of the property. Most of the minor characters are either venal and corrupt or weak, apart from the lower classes, slaves and workmen, who are undefined outside of their labour. There is a love theme, but it is in a minor chord, though it becomes Attilius’s main motivation once he has accepted the inevitability of the eruption of Vesuvius and destruction of the towns and most of the population. Corelia is the good, brave and beautiful daughter of Ampliatus, and we are left uncertain whether she and Attilius escape the cataclysmic destruction of raining ash, pumice, rocks and fire that engulfs most of the populace and the buildings.
The ending, of course, apart from this nuance, is inevitable, so the action plot’s main tension is in wondering when the eruption will happen, and whether the central characters will escape against all odds. For those with a curiosity about the destruction of this part of Roman civilisation in 79 AD, and an interest in the science of vulcanology, there is much to enjoy in this book. Harris is able to weave factual details and physical action into his story while keeping up the momentum and the suspense. It kept me turning the pages, though I had little interest in the epigraphs from vulcanological treatises at the beginning of each chapter. It was certainly good enough to sustain my motivation to read Enigma.