Title: Land of Marvels
Author: Barry Unsworth
Release Date: January 6, 2009
Publisher: Nan A. Talese
Genre: Historical Fiction
Rating: 2.5 out of 5
From the publisher’s website:
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 Somerville’s 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 he’s not the only one working undercover to stake a claim on Iraq’s rich oil fields.
When I first heard about Land of Marvels, I thought it sounded really interesting. It was written by former Booker Prize winner (his book Sacred Hunger was the joint winner of the 1992 Booker Prize), so I figured the writing would probably be good. It’s about archaeology, which I find fascinating, and it is set in the days just prior to World War One in the Middle East, which is an amazing period in history.
Unfortunately, despite all those positives, Land of Marvels just doesn’t seem to measure up. While the storyline is interesting, it doesn’t actually seem to get going until the second half of the novel. The first half plods along aimlessly and there is no driving force pushing the book forward. Once you manage to get through that, the second half of the book picks up the pace and the different threads in the novel begin to come together. Happily, the ending is satisfyingly exciting.
I very much enjoyed the archaeological aspects of Land of Marvels. I don’t know much about the Assyrians and it was very interesting to learn about them. I only wish the book had focused more on archaeology; Unsworth writes about the topic very well and I would have loved to have seen more.
The commentary that Unsworth seeks to make in the book about greed over Middle Eastern oil is interesting, but doesn’t really work in the book. It’s as if he couldn’t decide whether he wanted to make the book historical fiction or social commentary. He tried to do both, and as a consequence the novel as a whole is choppy, slow, and doesn’t really work as a whole.
The characters in Land of Marvels aren’t portrayed very sympathetically. Most are two-dimensional, not fully developed or realized and they are difficult to understand. It only adds to the frustration in reading the book, because there are no characters for the reader to “root for.”
While Land of Marvels could have been really great, it just didn’t seem to measure up. Others may find it more interesting than I did, but it just wasn’t my cup of tea!
Thank you to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review!