The eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79 is an event that catches the imagination of anyone fascinated by that transition between life and death that is caught in time and captured so evocatively in the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum and in the remains of the disaster’s human and animal victims. I know I’m enthralled by it. I’ve visited both sites several times over the last few years and the pull on me never lessens, only increases. But never have these streets, houses and businesses, slaves, senators and householders felt as alive to me as they do now and for that I have A Day of Fire to thank.
A Day of Fire comprises six short stories (each averaging about 40-50 pages) by six different authors: The Son by Vicky Alvear Shecter; The Heiress by Sophie Perinot; The Soldier by Ben Kane; The Senator by Kate Quinn; The Mother by E. Knight; and The Whore by Stephanie Dray. I’m no lover of short stories, on the contrary, but this is no ordinary compilation. Each of these stories is linked, not only by the events of Pompeii’s last few days, which would have pulled all of the city’s inhabitants together in survival, but by an array of very different characters who move between the stories, adding a spectrum of perspectives to their personalities.
The stories move chronologically, starting a few days before the eruption, but the signs of something monumental about to happen are there from the beginning, and when all hell lets loose, blimey, it lets loose.
The characters are a mixed bunch, as can be seen by the titles of the stories, and each is fascinating, introducing every level of Pompeian society and several of them are caught up in key moments of their lives – a gladiatorial combat, a marriage, a birth. Others are learning something about themselves, led on as they might be by a whore or a crook. Some might surprise themselves – they certainly surprise the reader – as the fates grab hold of their lives. No characters are black and white. These people change and how they appear in one story might be different in another. This is enhanced by the differing perspectives. Narratives, even in some cases within the same story, move between characters and they also move between first and third person.
And all the time the city of Pompeii comes alive even as it is being destroyed. I recognise several of the roads and buildings that feature here and now they seem even more real, now I can picture the frightened crowds running though the rutted streets, hiding in bath houses, moving into the back rooms of their villas, fleeing the amphitheatre, tied down by chains in the gladiatorial barracks.
It would be difficult to pick a favourite story from among the six as I enjoyed all of them very much indeed but the most memorable would have to be The Mother. I’m surprised my eyes didn’t fall out I cried so much. It is all the more powerful because this is a well know Pompeii scenario but never has it seemed so utterly real and heartbreaking. Otherwise, I must mention The Soldier and The Whore but I could just as easily mention the other stories.
I like the idea of a compilation of stories in which the authors consult and inspire each other to produce a range of perspectives on one world or theme. This worked for me recently with Journal of the Plague Year and A Day of Fire shows again how effective this style of anthology can prove. The result here is powerful, dramatic, intensely moving and terrifyingly real.