Havens of Pompeii by Nicole Louw

This novel by Nicole Louw improved with the turn of every page. I'll admit I was a bit put off when we plunged fairly quickly into the boorish slave markets of Neapolis to meet our hero, Valerus Claudius Cascus, a young son of a good Roman household. Valerus is a man who is both an injured ex gladiator and a hot-headed, morally ignorant fool. With him is his friend, Lucius, another young man, this time with a strong bond to his friend that manifests itself strongly in Valerus’ future many hours of need as the novel progresses.

The novel commences with them purchasing three slave dancers for several nights of hedonistic pleasure. Problem for the shallow Valerus, one of them, Flavia, is not about to give up her virginity and is somewhat traumatised due to the beatings she suffered as a child and the death of her mother at the tusks of a boar. She emphatically rejects him which leads him to give her as a gift to his father - an  impulsive action that is the catalyst for the rest of the novel.

What follows is very much geared towards the psyche of the female reader as Flavia struggles to deny her feelings for Valerus (who has the necessary honed physique that is mandatory in the genre) as he, in turn, comes to realise she is not like his other conquests and possesses a depth of character that intrigues him. To call it “chick-lit” would be a disservice as it is far better than that, but you’ll understand the tone of the romance from this crude appellation. As with all such novels, most of the first half of the book is spent with both Flavia and Valerus quietly observing each other, then adjusting their own attitudes to humanity, life, love, and their place in it, followed by a desperate realisation that their social positions makes a relationship difficult if not impossible.

Declarations of love, agonising hours of introspection, reflection, and general ‘mea culpa’ ensue, until they pronounce their feelings for one another and fall into that heady bliss of a lover’s world that has only two people in it. This is brought to us with lengthy internal soliloquies ranging from: “the real guilt came from the fact that he had truly admired her by the way she stood her ground. No one had ever done that to him or ever shown such determination and self-respect. It was, he had to admit, strangely attractive.” to “his appearance changed from average to very attractive. It was truly amazing how a character influenced that.” I have to say… it’s told very well and we not only empathize with these two, but actively begin to sympathise with them once the world around them starts to sit up and take notice of what’s going on.

The latter occurs in the form of paternal disapproval from the paterfamilias, Pedicus, coupled with an accidental “murder” which gets the authorities of Herculaneum involved. Love will not be denied and all attempts to separate the pair fall on deaf ears. After Valerus’ sojourn back in the arena to try and win the price to buy Flavia, they decide to elope with all its ensuing problems. During the journey of this novel we move between the ill-fated towns of Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Stabiae. Our oscillation between them is dictated purely by the impulsive whims of our two lovers, fuelled by their supporting casts - which include Marcus, Stephanus, Pliny the Younger , Pomponianus , Proculus and Asilia amongst others (there are about twenty five in the ensemble). As readers we copy Valerus and Flavia as they lurch on bad knees from beaches to villas; we escape in chariots in the dead of night, we mutter sweet poetry in gardens, we taste the metallic tang of blood in the arena, we applaud at the theatre, we find spiritual solace in the saving of the poor fisherman.

Looking a bit harder at the historical perspective I thought that the author tended to avoid description of place in the narrative, focusing far more on the thoughts of the characters. I would have liked more immersing in the world of the Roman Empire, to feel I was truly walking the streets of Pompeii. There was some attempt at using Latin (clearly pointed out to the reader with the use of italics) which, at times, was  oddly strange when characters would make hybrid linguistic statements like “let’s have cena” rather than “dinner”. There were references to people and places before the time of AD79. For example: Andalusian and Cadiz - neither word was around at the time - should really have been Hispania and Gades. The word “sword” was used, rather than “gladius”. Etc.

Some words were used by characters before their time - ‘aristocrat’ being a repeat offender  which is an 18th century word or “earthquake” which pops up in the 13th century - and several  typos were in the text: “as he did not spent much”, “… their heads. And their clothes”, “switching emotion from pure luxury to rage”, “how can one man chose who lives”, “the woman dimmed her head a little”, “Dawn befell the man’s face”,  “screamed a cursed.” Etc. Tiny stuff proofreading should have caught.

There is a fine, lengthy sequence describing the eruption of Vesuvius. A sequence that is several chapters, almost the entire final third of the novel. It is treated spectacularly well, as the author takes us from the interest and unconcern of Pompeii’s and Herculaneum’s citizens through their growing realisation of danger, mounting panic, then the differing ways of meeting their inevitable deaths. Deaths that care not for society, come the final denouement. We have fine descriptive passages of the eruption: “In the forum there were the cries of a fleeing city muffled by ash” which place the reader in the exact centre of this ancient ground zero. For this alone, Ms Louw should be applauded.

In some respects the author has followed the popular path taken by the movie Titanic - a love story where two opposing social worlds collide and reconcile in love, followed by an epic disaster. Like the film, there are threads of history tightly bound to fiction; we see “Pliny die on that shore under the glow of Vesuvius”, smell and feel the fear of thousands before spiralling downwards with the author and her main character to a state where Valerus sees “himself looking back for a few seconds before his reflection began to fade.”

I could pull many fine quotes from this novel on the themes of tolerance and love... the fact there are so many shows us how the author understands her subject matter. She has Pliny the Younger describe it best when he says: “Love, Valerus. I like to see it in people. I like to study its pattern. We all look for that perfect match, and yet the perfect match always raises more complications, testing its worth… Flavia is making you see what real worth is… It’s Love, Valerus. Nothing has ever been simpler.”

I thought this novel was a historical romance. It is both that and a complete tragedy. It also has a strong dose of social philosophy, of breaking moral boundaries, of crossing classes in society, of understanding the message of Christianity. Yet, at its heart, it is a love story. A love story that teaches a young man: “You loved a woman who returned it… You escaped a disaster not even the gods could control… what does not kill us makes us grow. Death is for those who nothing left to learn.”

Is this novel better than the acclaimed Margaret George or  Coleen McCullough? No. But it’s very good and sits nicely in the tier below the likes of those authors. You’d be hard pressed to find a better written Vesuvian romance.

9/10 You'd be hard pressed to find a better written Vesuvian romance.

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