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Guide price: £10
Last updated on 31st Dec 2009
The rise of Robert Harris as one of the UK's premier novelists has been something of a phenomenon. His breakthrough book was, of course, Fatherland, and even though the premise (Germany had won the Second World War and occupied Britain) was not original, the treatment was astonishingly assured. From that date onwards, a series of remarkable books flowed from his metaphorical pen: Archangel, Enigma and the much-acclaimed Ghost.
But if one element has distinguished Harris’s career, it is his wholly admirable refusal to be typecast with regard to genre. The thriller may be his natural home, but he has shown an immense skill at dealing with historical subjects and the past: one of his most impressive novels was the massive and ambitious Pompeii (recently on the point of being filmed by Roman Polanski before his own past came back to haunt him).
And here's Lustrum, another historical novel that cannily utilises elements of the thriller but attempts something far more challenging than most proponents of that genre. Harris’s continuing theme is the battle for power, and this Rome-set narrative deals with the years around 63BC when Cicero was Consul of Rome, building to the unstoppable accession to power of the canny and ruthless Caesar.
Rome, in the process of consolidating its massive empire, resounds to the sounds of a no-holds-barred struggle for influence. The protagonists here are the canny consul Cicero, the equally Machiavellian Caesar, the Republic's eminent general Pompey and the hyper-rich Crassus. These real historical figures (and others, including the psychopathic Catilina) are stirred into a very heady brew by Robert Harris, beginning when the body of a child, grotesquely mutilated, is discovered.
The trial and execution that follows plunges the city of Rome into a ferment as destabilising as anything it has faced. This is Robert Harris at his considerable best, evoking the ancient past with a vividness that few of his contemporaries can muster.
But apart from the richly detailed historical pageant on offer in Lustrum, the real coup of the book lies in the creation of the character of Cicero: wonderfully realised, with all the contradictions and charm of his nature acting as the perfect fulcrum for this sprawling but utterly persuasive narrative. --Barry Forshaw