Review – Pompeii: A Roman Girl’s Diary AD78-79

Claudia is the daughter of a well-to-do baker, in the great city of Pompeii, southern Italy. She is an everyday teen living in a world so far removed from our own, it was entrancing to follow her on this dusty, rumbling journey. Living in the shadow Mt Vesuvius, Claudia has felt unsettled for some time. The Gods are angry. There have been trembles. Cracks have been appearing in the mud walls of their house and dog Pollux has been acting strangely.

Nonetheless, life goes on behind the walls of Pompeii. Slaves are bought and sold, chariots rumble through the streets, gladiators fight to the death in the ring – all the usual things.

It’s when she spies a red-headed British slave called Aengus that things begin to change for Claudia. Entranced by the boy, she is horrified when, after performing a heroic public feat, he is sold into the Gladiator ring. Poor Aengus will now never be free, and will never be able to find his young sister, who has also been sold into slavery.

Intent on helping Aengus anyway she can, whilst simultaneously avoiding meddling, hoity family friend Aemilia, Claudia instead befriends Aemilia’s cousin Calpurnia, who soon learns of her passion for Aengus. With the shadow of the massive eruption of Mt Vesuvius over their heads, can Claudia follow both her gut feel and her heart – and steer her family, and new friends, away from Pompeii at just the right time?

Sue Reid has done a remarkable job of taking us back in time via the pages of this beautifully-penned diary. Her central character is endearing, very real and compassionate, and sub-characters are also well-fleshed and enjoyable. The fine detail of life at this time in Italian history is evocative and thoroughly entertaining – from the way paving is laid in the streets, to the food eaten and the vicious happenings in the gladiator ring, a trip into the past is guaranteed. Subplots and very real relationships and difficulties are threaded through the book, with all the while – that haunting undercurrent of imminent explosion bubbling just below the surface.

Although I enjoyed the entire book, I was particularly thrilled with the dramatic way Reid describes the explosion itself, and the way she handles her characters. Talk about page-turning. Relationships, survival and questions are left open-ended at the conclusion of the book, so although we may never know how things finished in the end for the book’s characters, a sense of completion is still afforded by the philosophical and heartwarming voice of this young teen, a voice Reid has done so well.

Pompeii: A Roman Girl’s Diary AD78-79 is published by Scholastic.

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Tania McCartney

Tania McCartney is an author of children's books and adult non-fiction. Recent books include Riley and the Grumpy Wombat: A journey around Melbourne, and Australian Story: An Illustrated Timeline. She's also an editor, publisher and founder of Kids Book Review.