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Krakatoa - Simon Winchester



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 rumblings began.

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.

 

 

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