This book was chosen to coincide with my visit to Pompeii. I finished reading it as the wheels touched down at Luton Airport. And what a great read it was.
Harris lists, in three pages at the end of the book, all of his sources of research, including the classicist Mary Beard's non-fiction book, also called Pompeii. And this impeccable research really shows.
I was fortunate enough to actually see the places Harris mentions in his novel: the bakery, wine shop and the adverts for the candidates for the elections, among other things. I walked down the cobbled streets and saw the red paint in the artwork in the houses. It was like reading an historical novel in 3D. Sadly, I also saw the remains of those who did not escape the volcano.
Pompeii is an ancient Roman city forever stuck in the year 79 AD. The huge, pyramid-shaped mountain, Vesuvius, dominates the landscape in a chilling display of power. I cannot begin to imagine how horrific that eruption was for the residents of Pompeii and the other affected towns. But Harris does not miss a single detail, from the interrupted water supply to the smells and sounds of the falling debris, the ash, the mud, the falling rocks.
The first thing that impresses me in this tale is that it is told from the perspective of an engineer who was brought in to repair the aqueducts. He meets up with slaves and the rich Roman residents who worry about their fountains and baths too much, but also demonstrate the typical lifestyles of the times. Harris lets his knowledge of engineering, volcanology and history seep through the story without a massive information dump. The attention to detail is profound without being suffocating.
Of course, we know that there is no way the folk of Pompeii can stop Mount Vesuvius from erupting and taking so many lives, but there are fictional characters and the impetus is whether they make it or not. There are also a couple of historical figures, such as Pliny the Elder, and it is great that his known quotes are woven into the story.
This is a fascinating read made all the better for not blinding the reader with neither pretentious nor simplistic facts about the three days surrounding the eruption, but giving a full and accurate picture of the events. Within this is a story of four main characters eternally bound together and their journey is not minimised by the disaster: in other words, they are fully rounded.
Harris writes in a modern style thus avoiding the uncomfortable faux-historical speech. This helps the story flow well. The only criticism is that on one or two occasions the phrases are a little too modern. For example, one character wasn't interested in any of that "Greek malarkey" in reference to homosexuality. It did amuse me though.
Overall I highly recommend this book to anyone, especially if you have an interest in the events surrounding the eruption of Mount Vesuvius or Roman life in this period.