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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



Robert Harris

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To purchase Pompeii

Title: Pompeii
Author: Robert Harris
Genre: Novel
Written: 2003
Length: 346 pages
Availability: Pompeii - US
Pompeii - UK
Pompeii - Canada
Pompeii - India
Pompéi - France
Pompeji - Deutschland
Pompeii - Italia
Pompeya - España

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Our Assessment:

B+ : solid entertainment, fairly well done

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Daily Telegraph A- 1/9/2003 David Robson
The Economist . 6/9/2003 .
Entertainment Weekly B 21/11/2003 Jennifer Reese
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung . 24/1/2004 Dieter Bartetzko
The Guardian . 6/9/2003 Mark Lawson
New Statesman A- 15/9/2003 Philip Kerr
The NY Times Book Rev. A- 21/12/2003 Daniel Mendelsohn
The Observer . 24/8/2003 Robert McCrum
People . 12/1/2004 Edward Karam
The Spectator . 4/10/2003 Jasper Griffin
Sunday Telegraph . 31/8/2003 Tom Holland
Time . 1/12/2003 Lev Grossman
TLS A 5/9/2003 Harry Sidebottom

  Review Consensus:

  Small reservations, but generally very favorable

  From the Reviews:
  • "Harris is no mug. As the story builds to its inevitable, tragic climax, one starts to appreciate the artistry of the earlier spadework. The final 100 pages are terrific, as good as anything Harris has done; and the last, teasing paragraph, done with the lightest of touches, is masterly. A whole community, buried in volcanic ash 2000 years ago, has been brought to life. (...) If that sub-plot is corny, the sort of thing that gives bestseller-writers a bad name, the novel has a solid substratum of well-conceived minor characters: from surly workmen and crooked small-town politicians to that fine old grandee, Pliny the Elder" - David Robson, Daily Telegraph

  • "As a writer, Mr Harris is as thought-provoking as he is entertaining. Thanks to his minute attention to detail, his handling of the eruption (which his readers know is coming though his characters don't) and his competence as a historian, the novel works both as an engaging thriller and as a believable portrayal of life in ancient Rome, with no small lesson for our own times." - The Economist

  • "(K)nowing exactly what infernal nightmare lies in store for the unsuspecting sybarites of Pompeii, lounging in their communal baths and vomiting mid-banquet, is what makes this book such a page-turner. It's certainly not the workmanlike narrative or characters, who are quickly forgotten every time Mount Vesuvius, the real protagonist, emits another sulfurous puff of smoke. (...) As fine, high-toned airplane reading, Pompeii succeeds admirably." - Jennifer Reese, Entertainment Weekly

  • "Rather than a whodunit, Pompeii is a whenwillit in which the killer looms in full view over the city, hissing magma. (...) Harris shows a great talent for the organisation of a story. The novel has a subtle underlying structure moving from water to fire -- it is the discovery of sulphur in the aqueducts that first hints at the conflagration to come -- and the story proceeds in short sections named after Roman days and hours, each starting with a teasing epigraph from a volume on volcanology." - Mark Lawson, The Guardian

  • "Almost in spite of his subject matter (in truth, who would have thought that a novel about a Roman plumber could be such a pleasure to read?) Harris proves, if proof were needed, that he is a writer who, unfashionably, never loses sight of his obligation towards the reader's welfare and enjoyment. (...) The book is not without its faults, however, and these are mostly to do with the period detail." - Philip Kerr, New Statesman

  • "(T)errific and prodigiously researched (.....) There are other scrumptious details, too (...) that lay readers will have to take on faith, but will warm the hearts of academic classicists. (...) Pompeii isn't perfect: there's an unconvincing subplot about a burgeoning romance between Attilius and Ampliatus' feisty daughter, Corelia, and, perhaps inevitably, the business about the corrupt real estate machinations, however historically accurate, ultimately pales in comparison with the looming natural disaster. But whatever drawbacks it has, Harris's latest thriller is so cunningly devised that, however unsurprising its denouement is, it still manages to end with a bang." - Daniel Mendelsohn, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Much of Harris's skill lies in disturbing the splendidly drawn luxury of Neapolitan life with premonitory intimations of catastrophe." - Robert McCrum, The Observer

  • "Harris is terrific in describing the grandeur of the aqueducts, inviting the reader inside them (...) But posteruption heroics turn melodramatic." - Edward Karam, People

  • "But he is too intelligent a writer to give us merely the towering inferno in togas. (...) The long-drawn-out death agony of the two cities -- a full day of falling ash, pumice stone, and then, the final catastrophe, a cloud of poisonous gas -- is brilliantly done." - Tom Holland, Sunday Telegraph

  • "Pompeii itself is a curious dish. It's marketed as a thriller, but it contains a lot more information about Roman engineering techniques and volcanology than your average Tom Clancy, and there are moments when the story feels like just an excuse to show off another nifty piece of research. Still, if Pompeii lumbers heavily at first, it eventually picks up speed" - Lev Grossman, Time

  • "Harris triumphs over these difficulties, and the ways in which he does so show a skilled writer on top form. (...) The plot moves on two levels, the personal and the cataclysmic.(...) The pitfalls that come with this territory are skilfully avoided by Harris, who engages with material ancient and modern in a thoughtful way. (...) A sophisticated thriller that takes in its stride the conventions of the historical novel, Pompeii deserves the place it will undoubtedly have at the top of the best seller lists. It even makes Roman water-management sexy." - Harry Sidebottom, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Pompeii is a novel which, one would imagine, comes with a huge handicap: every reader knows what's going to happen. The challenge, then, is to present and tell the story and the inevitable outcome -- with all those doomed characters ! -- in a sufficiently gripping manner; Harris manages quite well.
       The central character is Marcus Attilius Primus, and the focus of the novel is not so much on Pompeii proper but on the aqueduct serving that entire region, the engineering marvel that was the Aqua Augusta. Attilius is the newly-appointed aquarius (the man in charge) -- fresh on the job, as the previous one has mysteriously disappeared -- and the book begins with him facing every aquarius' nightmare, a serious problem with the water supply.
       Pompeii begins two days before the eruption of Mount Vesuvius (Harris practically counts down the hours, so it's always clear how close disaster is), and the troubles with the aqueduct are the first portents of what is to come -- except that no one recognises them as such. The first rumblings of water-problems also bring Attilius into contact with the very powerful and rich former slave, Ampliatus, whose fishery has become tainted by sulfur. Attilius' first encounter with Ampliatus shows the man at his very worst (having a slave put to death) -- but their paths will cross again. And then there's Ampliatus' daughter, who immediately catches the eye of Attilius.
       Attilius recognises that drastic action is required, including closing the aqueduct (i.e. cutting off the water supply) in order to fix it. But he has a pretty good idea of where the blockage is, and it should be easy to find (because of the enormity of the break). He explains the situation to Pliny, and gets his support, and then races off first to Pompeii and then to fix the aqueduct.
       Harris keeps the tension fairly high, and the use of a different race against time -- the water supply must be brought online as soon as possible, or who knows how the locals will react -- is an effective way of holding the reader in suspense for what is otherwise largely a foregone conclusion. The focus on the aqueduct, itself an incredible technical accomplishment, is also a clever idea, and interesting from both the technical and political point of view; from Ampliatus' fishery to what's found when the water supply dwindles Harris uses it very effectively.
       The blockage can be cleared, but other dangers lurk. There are those who have an interest in Attilius not returning from his expedition, for example. And the forces of nature that could compromise the aqueduct in this way are something no one has ever seen ..... Attilius explores more -- there's even a (pseudo-)dramatic scene atop Vesuvius (not one of Harris' master-strokes) -- and then, of course the damn thing starts spewing all sorts of nasty stuff.
       Harris packs a lot in, as Attilius manages to get around the entire region despite what's going on. He joins Pliny (whose fate is, of course, historically known), and certainly the continuous falling of all the ash and first airy pumice and then heavier rock makes for considerable drama. Attilius eventually, of course, heads to Pompeii -- and we all know what became of that place. Can he outrun the lava ? Can he save Ampliatus' daughter and ride off into the sunset (or something like that) with her ? Tune in and find out .....
       Pompeii is good entertainment. The tension is nice and high, with Attilius aware that he's in constant danger, regardless of what he does (being the aquarius when the aqueduct breaks is a bad career move for a start, and, of course, that turns out to be the least of his problems ...). Attilius is undeniably the good guy, the professional who does what has to be done (and doesn't allow himself to be corrupted). Pretty much everything else around him stinks, and not just from the sulfur. Pompeii, in particular, is a nest of corruption, led by Ampliatus, and Attilius can only trust one or two of those employed to help him. Pliny is a solid authority figure, and there's that touch of romance, too (adding to the drama, Attilius was tragically widowed and hasn't quite gotten over it). Sure, a lot of this is too simply sketched, but in the tense, rushed atmosphere it all works fairly well.
       Certainly entertaining and gripping enough, and, though literarily unexceptional, a solid effort.

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Pompeii: Reviews: Robert Harris: Other books by Robert Harris under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See also the Index of Contemporary British fiction at the complete review

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About the Author:

       British author Robert Harris, born in 1957, achieved international success with his first novel, Fatherland. He has been a correspondent for the BBC, and a columnist for the Sunday Times.

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