Very early on the morning of May 10, 1883, a lighthouse keeper gazing out at the Sunda Strait, which separates Sumatra from Java, saw the surface of the ocean suddenly whiten, go still, then become oil-slick smooth. Like an unsuspecting sorority girl in a horror movie, he shrugged it off as insignificant--just part of the region's usual seismic background noise. Ninety-nine days later, the nearby volcanic island of Krakatoa exploded, producing probably the loudest sound heard in human history and killing more than 36,000 people.
In Krakatoa (HarperCollins; 416 pages), Simon Winchester takes an event that happened in a white-hot second and expands it in both directions, filling in the backstory and aftershocks to create a mesmerizing page turner. When Krakatoa erupted, at 10:02 a.m. on Aug. 27, 1883, it vaporized a 2,600-ft. mountain, created waves that killed a woman 2,000 miles away and produced spectacular sunsets as distant as New York City. But Winchester, who wrote the best-selling The Professor and the Madman, finds human stories in the island's troubled history that dwarf even the volcanic one.
In Krakatoa, Winchester has found not only a rich subject but also an able collaborator. This is an island that knew how to build tension. European spice traders fought over the Indonesian archipelago for centuries. The Dutch (mostly) came out on top, and the islands' riches gave rise to the world's first joint-stock company and the world's first corporate logo. Winchester deftly evokes the sleepy rhythms of 19th century colonial life--the hotel bars, the town gossip, a runaway elephant--which go on even as volcanic tremors begin knocking plates off tables, shrouding ships in ash and making compasses spin. Winchester, a geologist by training, initiates us gently into the pleasures of plate tectonics, and he leavens his lectures with big-budget action scenes: when the big day comes, ravenous tidal waves chase the locals up cliffs and strand a hapless Dutch gunship a mile and a half inland, its crew of 28 dead on arrival.
Winchester is an extraordinarily graceful writer. He may be the world's greatest crafter of smooth transitions, and he has the good sense never to resist an irresistible digression. His footnotes feature, among other gems, cameos by the world's largest flower (the yard-wide Rafflesia arnoldii) and the world's longest book (the Javanese Book of Kings, 6 million words long). Above all, Winchester is delightfully alert to history's ironies and synchronicities. The destruction of Krakatoa occurred just as the global net of telegraph cables--the Victorian version of the Internet--was being completed, and the disaster became the world's first mass-media news sensation. "Millions of people hitherto unknown to one another," he writes, "began to involve themselves, for the first time ever, in looking beyond their hitherto limited horizons of self." Paradoxically, even as the eruption of Krakatoa pulverized an island, it united a planet. --By Lev Grossman