Barry Unsworth, a writer with an almost magical capacity for literary time travel (New York Times Book Review) has the extraordinary ability to re-create the past and make it relevant to contemporary readers. In Land of Marvels, a thriller set in 1914, he brings to life the schemes and double-dealings of Western nations grappling for a foothold in Mesopotamia (now Iraq) in the dying days of the Ottoman Empire.
Somerville, a British archaeologist, is excavating a long-buried Assyrian palace. The site lies directly in the path of a new railroad to Baghdad, and he watches nervously as the construction progresses, threatening to destroy his discovery. The expedition party includes Somervilles beautiful, bored wife, Edith; Patricia, a smart young graduate student; and Jehar, an Arab man-of-all-duties whose subservient manner belies his intelligence and ambitions. Posing as an archaeologist, an American geologist from an oil company arrives one day and insinuates himself into the group. But hes not the only one working undercover to stake a claim on Iraqs rich oil fields.
Historical fiction at its finest, Land of Marvels opens a window on the past and reveals its lasting impact.
He knew they would come that day or the next. Jehar had sent word. But it was only by chance that he saw them approach. He had risen soon after dawn, tense with the fears that came to him in these early hours of the morning, and fumbled his clothes on, taking care to make no noise that might disturb his wife, who slept in the adjacent bedroom, only separated from him by a thin wall. Crossing the courtyard, he saw that Hassan, the boy who kept the gate, was asleep under his blanket, and he took the same care to avoid arousing him.
By habit--it was the only route he ever took whether on foot or on horseback, though rarely so early--he followed the track that led for a half mile or so through low outcrops of limestone toward the hump of Tell Erdek, the mound they were excavating. This seemed to fill the sky as he drew nearer to it, black still, like an outpost of night. Then he saw a sparkle of silver from the floodlands in the distance and knew that the sun was showing behind him....
Unsworth has a narrative style that sneaks up on you. Understated, subtle but not slow moving each sentence entices, lures, teases, dares you to read the next until you are immersed in a place, a time, a convergence of personalities that you can't get out of your head. And that's okay, because Land of Marvels proves you can trust this Booker Prize winning author. The characters are true to themselves. The place is familiar yet exotic and more than a little scary. And the times, well, the more they seem different and foreign the more the feel all too uncomfortably familiar.
(Reviewed by Donna Chavez).
Full Review (1116 words).
A Short History of Archeology
The fictional John Somerville's interest in archeology was typical for his time. Most so-called archeologists of the period were, like him, self-taught because there were virtually no academic courses offered. Additionally, his desire to secure a rich benefactor to fund his excavations was standard operating procedure in the field; for example, the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1923 was made by archaeologist Howard Carter, but financed by the wealthy George Herbert, 5th Lord of Carnarvon.
Archeology as a science is a relatively recent discipline. Before the 19th Century what passed for archeology was little more than grave pillaging with the plundered artifacts removed far from their point...
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