Sunday, March 30, 2014

Ode to Civil Engineering

Pompeii
By Robert Harris

It seems to be a season of Rome for me. After the thrilling Attila series, I chanced upon more historical fiction from the old empire, this time by a former BBC Correspondent who knows how to keep readers glued. This one though leans more on the side of fiction, with virtually no historical truth in it except the very premise. Nonetheless, it is the writing style that stands out here. Unlike what most writers do, Robert Harris starts Pompeii by getting right to the end and telling readers what happens in the end - the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in this case. And from there, he builds up a powerful tale around his fictitious characters. Quite a unique style of writing.

The most wonderful aspect of this book is the fact that its protagonist is a Civil Engineer, certainly a rarity in literature (the only other idea I can think of is Atlas Shrugged, although Dagny Taggart was not strictly an engineer; in The Fountainhead, the protagonist was an architect who should have been an engineer). Harris has certainly invested sometime in researching hydraulics as he rightly describes some elementary principles of channel construction. But it isn't a treatise on Civil Engineering and the technical references are meant to help readers appreciate the wonder of Roman engineering.

Overall, this was a great book, very well written, but not a companion to a historian (it even lacks a historical note). If that's OK, I highly recommend it. 

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