Review by Lizzie Guilfoyle
I MAKE no secret of the fact that volcanoes fascinate me, so
it was with genuine enthusiasm that I began reading Simon Winchester's
Krakatoa - The Day The World Exploded. But, given
the subject matter, would it be everything I hoped for?
The eruption, itself, doesn't occur until midway through the
book but what comes before is a correlation of facts and figures
that puts the event in its true perspective.
Yet what could so easily become a tedious lesson in subjects
as diverse and complex as politics, plate tectonics and Darwin's
(or should that be Wallace's?) theory of evolution is, in fact,
an absorbing and enthralling literary work, due entirely to Winchester's
skill as a writer.
He has, quite clearly, done his homework, researching the subject
from every conceivable angle and comprehensively setting the scene
for the worst natural disaster in recorded history.
But what makes it so utterly spellbinding are the numerous, interwoven
anecdotes. Take Mrs van der Stok, for instance, 'a middle-aged
Dutch lady', wife of the director of the Magnetic and Meteorological
Observatory, in Batavia, whose delft dinner plate fell off the
dining room table and broke into a thousand pieces when Krakatoa's
But my favourite has to be 'the curious case of the terrified
elephant' - a very small elephant, a mere two tonnes in weight,
that just happened to be performing with the circus, in Batavia,
shortly before Monday, August 27, 1883, the day Krakatoa finally
exploded into oblivion.
But just why the little elephant went berserk and trumpeted and
roared and stamped his 'not-yet-enormous feet', you'll have to
find out for yourself.
And of the eruption itself, Winchester's account, supported by
eye-witness reports of the time, brings it startlingly and terrifyingly
alive. Even so, the sheer scale of the eruption is virtually incomprehensible
- the final detonation, for example, that could be heard almost
3,000 miles away.
But Winchester's account doesn't end there. It explores the impact
of the disaster from every angle - the tsunamis that literally
swept away thousands of lives; the livid sunsets, the blue moons;
and so much more, ending with perhaps, the most significant of
them all, a personal visit to Anak Krakatoa - the highly active
and extremely dangerous, 'child of Krakatoa'.
And the legacy is a chilling one, for given all the facts, history
will, one day, repeat itself.
As for the book, it was even more than I'd hoped for and, dare
I say it, a cracking good read to boot.