When the Volcano Blows!

Sundae Horn
Island Bookshelf
Island Bookshelf

Island Bookshelf will be a regular feature of OcracokeCurrent.

It’s a column about books of all sorts, or more specifically, about Books I Like. I read old books and new books – it doesn’t matter when a book was published; I only care about when the book found me.

“I don’t know where I’m-a gonna go when the Volcano blows!” Or, a Day in the life of Pompeii

So what could a c.1979 Jimmy Buffett song possibly have in common with a c. 79 tale of  suspense? Well, without giving too much away, just let me tell you that our hero in Pompeii by Robert Harris has just a few hours to figure out where he’s a-gonna go, when old Mt. Vesuvius blows her top.

Pompeii is the fascinating and painstakingly researched novel about the last days of a corrupt and seedy city, just before it’s destroyed. Now, you and I know how it’s a-gonna go – the volcano’s gonna blow and the whole town’ll be buried for oh, about 1700 years under a ton or so of ash – but Attilius, the young engineer who’s been sent to Pompeii to fix the Augusta aqueduct, he’s clueless. And that’s what gives us our suspense. I was so anxious reading this book that I read it too fast. I had to start right over and read it again so I could actually enjoy the agonizing build up to the big finale.

Attilius is swoon-worthy, and when he meets Corelia, the daughter of a former slave turned wealthy slave-owner, you can’t help but root for the couple in spite of the big bang you know is waiting for them in about a hundred pages. Corelia is beautiful and resourceful and brave, and it’s a good thing, because I would not allow a lesser woman to get near Attilius, who’s all those things plus decent, hardworking, loyal, honest and smart. And strong. And compassionate. He’s the epitomy of grace under pressure, and he puts the “civil” back in civil servant.

The historical detail about ancient Rome was amazing*, and I would rank this book among the best works of historical fiction that I’ve read. Not to mention what I learned about volcanology, emergency management, engineering, politics and plumbing! Harris begins each chapter with a quote from a scientific tome about volcanoes, carefully chosen to heighten the reader’s anxiety, as Attilius engages in his battle against time to fix the aquaduct, while slowly** beginning to realize that his problems (with water and people) are bigger than he thought and that perhaps something strange is happening deep within the earth and perhaps he needs to get his job done and get out of town, but what if they*** manage to murder him before he finds Corelia again?

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll admit that I probably never would’ve picked up this book if it hadn’t been written by Nick Hornby’s brother-in-law. It’s true; Robert Harris is married to Nick Hornby’s sister Gillian, and that’s a good enough recommendation for me. The subject matter (ancient Rome) and the genre (thriller) are not my usual cuppa, but Nick Hornby wrote in his Stuff I’ve Been Reading column that it was good (and said he would have said that even if the author wasn’t kin), so I tried it. And I’m so glad I did.

Pompeii is a great gender crossover book – Rob liked it, too, and I enjoyed discussing it with him, although he kept wanting me to give stuff away like “He’s going to find out who killed the other guy, right?” or “She’s going to get caught, right?” and even worse, “They’re not going to make it, are they?” I didn’t tell him and I won’t tell you either.

*Fun fact: a Roman delicacy was tiny whole mice rolled in honey and poppy seeds. Yum!

**Actually, he’s brilliant, so he cottons on rather quickly, it was just too slow for me. Not that the book is slow, quite the contrary, but I wanted Attilius to get safely away from that mountain NOW. I wanted a time machine so I could go back and order a mandatory evacuation!

***Aren’t you wondering who “they” are?







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