Pompeii by Robert Harris
This is one of those books that you pick up thinking, “yeah, I know what happens. What could this little novel possibly tell me?” And then you read the blurb on the back and the pull quotes from reviews (“terrific, gripping”...and “The blast from Vesuvius kicks ash”) and you think, “Ok, I’ll give it a shot.”
And then you’re sunk. It’s one of the densest books I’ve ever had the pleasure of encountering. The research Harris embarked upon before putting pen to paper is obvious. Not only are there historical figures playing main roles in the plots, but cultural, political, and historical references make it feel like it’s set now, rather than 2,000 years ago.
So yes, you know what happens. Vesuvius erupts and covers Pompeii in ash and stone, buried for centuries until it is unearthed for the tourists. But what about the people? There is the aquarius, Marcus Atillius Primus - referred to as Atillius or simply, the aquarius, called to Misenum to replace their former aquarius who has unexpectedly disappeared. There are his slaves and crew: Corax who openly hates him, the slave Polites who trusts in the guidance. There are politicians and freedmen. There is - of course - a beautiful girl, whose destiny is one that most readers cringe at.
It is two days before the eruption - the book is broken into time like this so you always know where the main event lies - and the Aqua Augusta has failed. Water in the far towns is drying up. It is - as Corax says at the book’s opening: “a fool’s errand” to try and repair it. Isn’t it? It’s an errand that takes us up and down the Neapolitan coast, introduces us to slaves, whores, politicians and social climbers. Harris describes the land in a way the evokes the senses and inspires a pilgrimage - if only to see the remains of what was once a “hustler’s town.”
The novels ends shortly after the eruption cools and the rains wash the air clean. Even though you know what happens, you know that most of these people are going to die, you keep reading because the aquarius keeps going. He is always thinking, planning, mourning. You want him to get on the ships, you want him to push through the ash, you want to give him your strength so that he can keep going.
Harris has a gift...I hesitate to use the word “magical” but there it is. Sure, Rowling can conjur up creatures you’ve never imagined and make you fall in love with them, but Harris makes you root for a civilization you know to be doomed before you even open the cover.
And not to give anything away...it ends the way it needs to end. It’s as though Harris knows that one way is too smarmy and the other too wrenching and he steers it through in a way that leaves you not quite sure until he’s ready to tell you, and then you know that it couldn’t have ended any other way.