Burning Mountain takes its name from mons igneus, the Latin for ‘volcano’, reflecting the central presence of Mount Vesuvius in the novel’s themes. The brief opening chapter plunges us into Pompeii in the midst of Vesuvius’s eruption in 79 A.D. The Roman soldier at the centre of this scene reappears as a ghost in subsequent chapters, which are set in the shadow of Vesuvius during the battle to take Monte Cassino in 1944. While the bombardment continues, the explosions, rending earth and impenetrable dust are intensified as Vesuvius erupts once more. These two stories take place within a framework set in the England of 2010 involving two teenage children, Denise and Craig, whose soldier-father was killed in the Gulf War and whose older brother, Richard, is currently serving in Afghanistan. Gradually, their dysfunctional family-life is mitigated through contact with the elderly and eccentric couple living next door, who have a link with the events in Italy in 1944.
The protagonist of the 1944 story is a young German paratrooper and Classics enthusiast who develops a friendship with an Italian girl descended from the Roman aristocracy but now living as a thief and beggar in occupied Naples. There is a close similarity between this paratrooper and Richard, a boldness which appeals directly to young Craig. But the paratrooper’s blind and terrified stumbling through the smoke and ashes of Vesuvius and Cassino suggests to him a journey across the River Styx. The frontier between life and death is a major theme of the book, which repeatedly considers ‘the one second (which it takes) to change from alive to dead’.
Adlington has written a powerful and complex book in which historical research enlivens the events described, while also contributing to the creation of a retrospective historical context. Some may feel that the reiteration of the theme of dying (coupled with some horrific descriptions of the dead) is difficult for a teenage readership, and the book does require a high level of maturity to be properly appreciated. Overall, however, this is an imaginative and thought-provoking work, combining an appreciation of history with sophisticated metaphysical themes.