I am a huge, huge fan of Robert Harris, and I strongly believe he is one of the best contemporary British novelists – and there's some stiff competition out there. So imagine how thrilled I was about Pompeii – a novel by one of my favorite authors, set in one of my favorite time periods, the Flavian dynasty, and whose main character is the little working hero of the Roman empire, the engineer.
Young engineer Marcus Attilius Primus is appointed to take care of the great aqueduct Aqua Augusta when the previous chief engineer disappears without a trace. Yay, mystery. He meets a girl and they fall in love – yay, romance – but her evil father gets in the way – yay, Romeo and Juliet. The real hero of the novel is, as you might have guessed, Vesuvius itself, on the verge of producing one of the biggest natural disasters in ancient Rome. There's also a cameo appearance by Pliny the Elder – I would have been very disappointed without it.
Even for a freak like me, it doesn't get any more Roman than a story about an aqueduct and an engineer.
I guess I was over-excited about this book for the first 50 pages or so. Then, it started getting on my nerves. The characters are stereotypical, the storyline falls flat – we pretty much know the volcano is going to erupt, can we get some action going in the meantime? - and the descriptive paragraphs just fail to accentuate the drama. Somehow I always assumed the great dualism, on a descriptive level, was between the mild, inviting, serene landscape of the area and the brutal destruction it revealed to be capable of – but Pompeii didn't confirm that. And didn't give me a better idea, either. I assume the great eruption is a subject better fitted for a painter than a writer.
After 100 pages or so, I started to notice the anachronisms, which is not a good sign; and I was dragging along over the lava-filled ending. I could very well see Robert Harris' Pompeii turned into a B movie, like those about the earthquake, the snake invasion, the killer bees invasion or the natural disaster of your choice wreaking havoc in the city of your choice.
All in all, Robert Harris' Pompeii is too dry to be a historical whodunit, too simple to be great historical fiction, too inaccurate to present itself as decent historical reading, and I can only say: don't judge Rober Harris on this book. He's got some great ones out there.