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.
British archeologist John Somerville is supervising a dig at a site called Tel Erdik located in the desert somewhere near the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in the spring of 1914. Since he has invested all that is left of his money into this effort he is hoping beyond hope to unearth a career-making discovery. Something of archeological significance that would attract investors in future digs and assure his ability to continue a career he's aspired to ever since he was a child. But right now it's not looking very promising.
His crews have been working too long and turning up too little in the way of artifacts. What's more, a railroad being constructed by the Germans threatens to literally plow through Tel Erdik, and Somerville's site, placing increased urgency on this already frantic search. Or at least that's what Jehar, Somerville's paid Bedouin informer, would have him believe. What Somerville doesn't know is that the illiterate-but-silver-tongued Jehar will say or do almost anything to stockpile enough money to so he can make the lovely Ninanna his wife.
Speaking of wives, to say that John's wife Edith Somerville is aloof is almost a criminal underestimation. Goodness knows why she's along for this ride. At the same time she claims to have married John for his passionate love of archeology she is put off by the desperation that oozes from his pores as the dig appears to be going downhill. She is judgmental and rarely engages with others in this isolated place until the dashing and also silver-tongued American geologist Alex Elliott shows up and proceeds to charm the pants off both figuratively and literally in at least one case everyone.
Once all the major players are in place the fun begins as conflict rages over who will get what from whom and/or where and whose treasure has the greatest importance. Somerville believes artifacts and treasures of the past outweigh the chauvinistically national claims anyone might have on other items, such as oil or railroad right-of-way. Obviously Elliott, working on behalf of a moveable feast of oil interests, disagrees. Others, like Somerville's British industrialist associate, believe nationalism is most important in those months leading up to war. And yet as Unsworth points out, "below the patriotic bluster and the public pronouncements, money worked in silence to make partners of enemies, to form alliances of a different kind, too profitable to risk breaking."
Overall, it is money that moves the plot along even Somerville is motivated by the stuff as it is what will allow him to continue his archaeological pursuits - until the twist-filled crescendo. To borrow a baseball analogy, Unsworth's windup may be slow and steady but his pitch packs a wallop in a rock 'em sock 'em finale that feints left, then right, then back again and left me, mouth agape, in awe.
About the Author
Barry Unsworth (b. 1930) won the Booker Prize for Sacred Hunger (1992); his next novel, Morality Play, was a Booker nominee and a bestseller in both the United States and Great Britain. His other novels include The Ruby in Her Navel, The Songs of the Kings, Losing Nelson, After Hannibal, The Hide, and Pascali's Island, which was also shortlisted for the Booker Prize and was made into a feature film.
He was born in Wingate, a mining village in Durham, England. After graduating from the University of Manchester in 1951, he lived in France for a year teaching English. In the 1960s he traveled extensively in Greece and Turkey, lecturing at the University of Athens and the University of Istanbul. In 1999 he was a visiting professor at the University of Iowa's Writers' Workshop. In 2004 he taught literature and creative writing classes at Kenyon College in Ohio. He currently lives in Umbria, Italy.
This review was originally published in January 2009, and has been updated for the January 2010 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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