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.
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).
New York Times - Christopher de Bellaigue
Unsworth succeeds in summoning the demons and the angels of Iraq’s present and past. Not bad for a volume you could read in an afternoon.
[Unsworth's] work is as clean as Hemingway's and as dark as Conrad's, and it's braced with a loathing of exploitative power...but the real triumph is the book's commentary on modern Iraq.
The tension between the players builds toward a violent, unexpected finale. In elegantly modulated prose, Unsworth creates a tapestry of ambition and greed while, at the same time, foreshadowing the current conflict in the region.
Starred Review. Unsworth here offers historical fiction at its best. [Land of Marvels] provides some insight into current political divisions in the Middle East as it explores the power and limitations of storytelling…. Unsworth [draws] characters with depth and complexity.
Starred Review. A transfixing melodrama alive with crackling suspense, sharply drawn characters, intense historical relevance and ideas in action. Absorbing and irresistible.
With measured prose that builds steadily in suspense, Unsworth does an excellent job at simultaneously evoking a past era and foreshadowing American involvement in the modern Middle East.
The Scotsman - Allan Massie
Unsworth is a novelist who has never quite been given his due – even though he shared the Booker Prize with his novel Sacred Hunger, which dealt with the slave trade. One reason may be that he does not care to repeat himself, but instead prefers to attempt something different with each book. Land of Marvels may not be his best novel – that title is to my mind disputed between The Rage of the Vulture and the chilling Morality Play. But it is a very good one, all the same.
The Guardian - Ursula K Le Guin
Reading this novel is like watching an Olympic athlete about to win the gold: the seamless flow of action, the mastery of technique, seemingly effortless yet demanding attention and eliciting admiration as an end in itself.
Daily Telegraph (UK)
Unsworth’s tale has the slow burn of a professionally laid fuse burning towards an explosive finale.
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 of origin to grace the curio cabinets of well heeled private collectors. A relatively
few artifacts ended up in museums.
According to the
Encyclopedia Britannica, "The development of scientific archaeology in
19th-century Europe from the antiquarianism and treasure collecting of the
Epic in its narrative sweep, steeped in historical fact yet profoundly humane, and dazzlingly evocative in its emotional and sensual detail. This is de Bernières' first book since Captain Corelli's Mandolin.
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