Review: Krakatoa, Simon Winchester

Rating: 4 out of 5

I thought this would be a straightforward story about a volcanic explosion with a discussion on the events leading up to and after the main explosion. What I got, however, was completely different—Mr Winchester starts this by an explanation of natural sciences, tectonic plates, the history of colonial Indonesia, and Dutch maritime adventures. In general, I don’t mind such tangents, but I don’t feel it was really necessary: perhaps delving more deeply into the subject itself could have made this feel more like the chief emphasis of the book.

The author clearly has experience in geology and geophysics, and indeed some of the very finest sequences are ones where he describes his own early research experience. Similarly thorough were the passages that noted the ongoings during Krakatoa’s first eruptions and how a relatively mild colonial life was upset. Of course, these small rumblings proved to be nothing when the main explosion occurred, but the period leading up to the main event is also very well described.

However, where the book is a bit weaker is what happens after the main explosion itself—the aftermath. Events on the nearby islands are described quite well, but for what the author says is a great effect on places around the world, there’s not much said about places other than modern Indonesia. It’s also here where the author starts to close up loose ends, so while he says that he discussed the way the disaster was reported around the world via the (new) invention of telegraph, the narrative never again reaches the same level of detail as the earlier topics.

Overall, I liked the book! Krakatoa is a topic most know nothing but the name. Therefore, being able to add a bit of detail is well worth the time to go through this book, but I wish the title had been stronger with fewer (distant) deviations from the main theme.

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