Certain thriller writers burst upon the scene with considerable impact: Forsyth with The Day of the Jackal, Cruz Smith with Gorky Park and Robert Harris with the masterly Fatherland. Interestingly, of these three authors, by far the most consistent has been Harris, and his new novel, Pompeii is in some ways his most audacious offering yet, a brilliantly orchestrated thriller-cum-historical recreation that plays outrageous tricks with the reader's expectations.
As in the equally adroit Enigma, Harris takes a familiar historical event (there, the celebrated code-breakers at Bletchley Park, here the volcanic obliteration of an Italian city in AD79) and seamlessly weaves a characteristically labyrinthine plot in and around the existing facts. But that's not all he does here: few novelists who (unlike Harris) make a speciality of ancient history for their setting pull off the sense of period quite as impressively as the author does here. As the famous catastrophe approaches, we are pleasurably immersed in the sights, sounds and smells of the Ancient World, each detail conjured with jaw-dropping verisimilitude.
Harris's protagonist is the engineer Marcus Attilius, placed in charge of the massive aqueduct that services the teeming masses living in and around the Bay of Naples. Despite the pride he takes in his job, Marcus has pressing concerns: his predecessor in the job has mysteriously vanished, and another task is handed to Marcus by the scholar Pliny: he is to undertake crucial repairs to the aqueduct near Pompeii, the city in the shadow of the restless Mount Vesuvius. And as Marcus faces several problems--all life threatening--an event approaches that will make all his concerns seem petty.
Other writers have placed narratives in the shadow of this most famous of volcanic cataclysms, but Harris triumphantly ensures that his characters' individual dramas are not dwarfed by implacable nature; Marcus is a vividly drawn hero: complex, conflicted and a canny synthesis of modern and ancient mindsets. Some may wish that Harris might return to something closer to our time in his next novel, but few who take this trip into a dangerous past will be able to resist Harris's spellbinding historical saga. --Barry Forshaw [via]