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Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded,
This review is from: Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883 (Paperback)
In times which are beset by profound natural disasters such as the 2004 Asian tsunami, works such as Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded have all the more relevance as a stand-alone study of what happens when the vast geological powers of the earth are brought to bear on the surrounding environment.
Winchester incorporates a slowly building sense of adventure and anticipation in his book, setting up a sense of colonial life with a sometimes over extended history of Dutch occupation of large areas of Indonesia following the departure of the Portuguese in the 1600s. The city of Batavia is described in full development from the most primitive of coastal villages up to its prime position on the coast at the time of the eruption in 1883. He also develops our understanding of the geological forces which worked against each other to cause the volcanic cataclysm. He looks, too, at the research of various scientists, equally lauded and rebuffed throughout the ages, such as Alfred Russel Wallace (who pre-empted Darwin's theories of evolution with extensive studies of Indonesian wildlife but was beaten to it by his contemporary) and Alfred Wegener (who devised the theory of continental drift years ahead of this process being fully understood).
But what the book really excels at is its depiction of the building explosions which destroyed an entire volcanic area, created 120 foot high tidal waves (the 2004 Asian tsunami waves were only 20 feet high, to put this into perspective) and wiped out entire coastal towns, villages and societies and even contributed to the growing political unease of the area which exists as Islamic-influenced tension today.
Krakatoa, the event, is all the more fascinating for the statistics: the pressure wave caused by the cataclysm circled the earth a full seven times, recorded on barometric pressure graphs the world over. The booms were heard as far as the eastern coasts of Africa; its recipients supposing gunboats were firing out at sea. Artists in Europe painted an endlessly fascinating series of works revealing glowing sunsets due to the atmospheric fallout for months after the eruption. But it is the scale of localised destruction which, as in recent news events, brings the names of towns such as Aceh to the fore once again. It can only be realised after completing this book that the death toll in 1883 would have been catastrophically high if the area was as heavily populated as it is today.
It is uncanny that the consequences of the destruction of Krakatoa have been mirrored so recently in the Asian subcontinent. However, this area of the world has been historically plagued with super-destructive events as it is placed within the Pacific "ring of fire", and Winchester's explanation that Krakatoa was only the 5th greatest volcanic event in known history sends shivers down the spine as we read of its destructive results.
If the book suffers a failing, it is that Winchester tends to prolong descriptions of the political ramifications of the geological events at Krakatoa in 1883 and, after such a vivid description of the environmental events, this comes as a something of a damp squib at the end of the text.
Even so, this work is a wonderful read and we are left to wonder when Krakatoa will breathe fire once again, as Anak Krakatoa slowly builds up again, year upon year, its cone reaching slowly towards the sky . . .