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A Whole Lava Love

Novel pores over Roman life

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Usually known for writing World War II-based thrillers, Robert Harris now turns his talents to engineering, plumbing and the writings of Roman scholar Pliny the Elder as the foundation for his narrative. Powered by the rumblings of the soon-to-blow Mount Vesuvius, Harris' new novel, Pompeii, offers a delightful ride through the Roman Empire as disaster looms.

The book chronicles four days in August of 79 A.D. -- the two days leading up to the eruption of Vesuvius; the day of the catastrophe when the volcano delivered a destructive capacity 100,000 times that of the Hiroshima atomic bomb; and the day after.

A young aqueduct engineer, Marcus Attilius Primus, takes center stage. Attilius has been enlisted as the aquarius, or chief engineer, of the Aqua Augusta, a 60-mile aqueduct feeding fresh water to 250,000 people across nine towns along the Bay of Naples. Attilius is a stoic man who thrives on work; the mysterious disappearance of his predecessor, Exomnius, led to his promotion as overseer of the Aqua Augusta.

When springs begin failing up and down the Augusta, Attilius arrives in Misenum searching for clues. The story begins with a corrupt, nouveau riche tycoon, Ampliatus, feeding his slave to carnivorous eels -- a theatrical, cruel act of retribution for the slave's assumed role in fouling his master's pond and killing prized fish.

Instead, Attilius soon realizes, the problem isn't the negligence of a slave, it's the town's failing water system. Thus Attilius, and Pompeii, kick into gear.

Despite the reams of Roman ruminations filling libraries, Harris manages to inform and educate without hobbling his tale. The set pieces are delicious: sun-drenched resorts filled with self-absorbed snobs, predilections for hair removal and unusual delicacies (sows' udders, anyone?), even the use of urine as the trusty laundry detergent of the time.

The politics are Louisiana corrupt. Everyone, it seems, is on the take. Ampliatus and Attilius offer the worst and best of their society, while Pliny the Elder brings relentless curiosity and a fading generation's perspective. In twilight, Pliny remains obsessed with discovering, and describing, all manner of natural and scientific phenomena. He would be pleased, then, with Pompeii, where the aqueduct and Vesuvius command the reader's fascination. Each is described in detail, but never at the expense of the narrative.

Attilius wins Pliny's backing for an expedition to Pompeii, the first town on the Augusta's main line. He suspects the aqueduct's failure is linked to a problem along a five-mile span near Vesuvius. First, though, he must win the assistance of Ampliatus for men and supplies -- and then he must find a solution to a problem that is insoluble. The conclusion is inevitable, and yet the journey of Attilius proves no less compelling.

As Attilius and his band of reluctant repairmen search for answers, Ampliatus and the town fathers continue making trouble. They squabble, they bribe, they plot to eliminate the all-too-honest aquarius now among them.

Ampliatus has begun construction on a luxurious bathhouse in Pompeii and, it soon becomes clear, had been bribing the former aquarius for free water service. His adolescent daughter, Corelia, has been promised to a local politician -- almost a literal purchasing of the man's irredeemable soul.

Throughout these plot lines, Harris manages the tricky terrain of dispensing cultural and historical perspective without intruding on the story. With Pliny, a scholar and writer, Harris can provide an authentic Roman view of science without lapsing into anachronism.

The details ring true. There are enough tunics and togas and dung-filled streets to set the long-ago scene, as well as timeless, irresistible elements of treachery and disloyalty.

A sense of doom pervades Attilius's repair expedition. The men are spooked by superstition. They see ghosts, imagine curses and wonder at the prophesies of seers able to see everything, save volcanic ash.

As the disastrous clues stack up -- the intermittent earth tremors in the days before the eruption offer the most obvious example -- it's too late to stave off the inevitable.

Harris loses his footing when he attempts to link the randomness of natural disaster with the perilous, lackadaisical attitude of a self-satisfied empire. Such missteps, though, are few. Through Attilius and Pliny, two dutiful but imperfect men, the explosive conclusion of Pompeii retains its fire.

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