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The City Of Invention

The book reviews of UK children's author, Brian Keaney

A Bustling Town On The Brink Of Disaster

Pompeii - Robert Harris

Just days before the eruption of Vesuvius, the engineer Attilius arrives in Pompeii to take charge of the aqueduct that provides water for all the communities dotted around the Bay of Naples. Pompeii is a bustling town whose inhabitants are busy making money and enjoying themselves. They have no idea of the imminent disaster that will overtake them.

But the novel is not primarily concerned with that eruption, at least not until the climax. Before that happens, Harris cleverly weaves a human story around the historical events. The previous water-engineer has disappeared without trace; his disappearance seems to be tied up with the dealings of a freed slave who has become a millionaire and is bankrolling Pompeii's magistrates; the millionaire's daughter, who is trapped in a loveless betrothal, reminds the engineer painfully of his dead wife.

The result is an extraordinarily gripping thriller. It doesn’t matter that we know how the novel will end. The reader is caught up in the struggle of the two young people to make sense of what is taking place all around them and to take control of their own lives.

The writing is muscular and the pace compelling but not at the expense of detail: Harris really brings the sights, smells, tastes and even the table-manners of the Ancient World to life.

The characters are believable, sympathetic and entirely authentic. In particular, there’s a marvellous portrait of Pliny the Elder, the Admiral of the Fleet who witnessed the eruption and described it in meticulous detail. I shall never think of him as a dusty Latin writer again.