three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
39-Mar-Apr-2009
user_rating: 
0

A-Land of MarvelsBarry Unsworth, author of more than a dozen novels, won the Booker Prize for Sacred Hunger. Other esteemed works include Pascali’s Island and Morality Play (both Booker finalists) and The Ruby in Her Navel (long-listed for the Booker).

The Story: Just before World War I, in the dying days of the Ottoman Empire, several Western nations compete for Mesopotamia’s (now Iraq’s) strategic territory and vast oil resources. British archaeologist John Somerville, about to unearth an ancient Assyrian palace, must fend off interests from a German railroad company intent on laying a line from Berlin to Baghdad. As British and American interests search for oil, Lord Rampling sneaks a geologist—handsome American Alex Elliott—into Somerville’s dig to find oil. While Elliott woos Somerville’s wife, Jehar, a native man working on the archaeological site, reveals his high ambitions. In this novel of imperial might, geopolitical interests, and double-dealings, the quest for empire marches on.
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday. 287 pages. $26. ISBN: 0385520077

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"The relentless quest for empire and influence, in lesser hands, might make the characters in Land of Marvels seem like two-dimensional pawns in a geopolitical chess game. However, Unsworth’s portrayals are sensitive and, to an extent, empathetic, giving the story a humanity it otherwise would not possess." Tyrone Beason

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"That much of this territory is now known as Iraq is not incidental to Land of Marvels, but the book is offered as background to what has happened there in recent years rather than as a politically inspired commentary on current American policy. … Land of Marvels can—and I believe should—be read as a corrective to the arrogance and overweening self-confidence that led the United States into the morass of Iraq, but it also is a reminder that nothing is forever." Jonathan Yardley

Guardian (UK) 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Long before that slightly stagey announcement of the country’s modern name [Iraq], the novel has made its point, demonstrated the relevance of its historical subject to affairs of immediate interest to us. The story has clearly appeared as a political struggle, pitting morally opposed forces against each other: disinterested knowledge against interested knowledge—research against spying and the science of archaeology, with little immediately practical application, against the science of geology, so useful to national governments seeking expansion of wealth and power." Ursula K. Le Guin

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The suggestion here of history as an irresistible cycle, raising nations only to consign them to oblivion, is essential to Unsworth’s knowing, detached brand of historical fiction. … Unsworth succeeds in summoning the demons and the angels of Iraq’s present and past." Christopher de Bellaigue

Los Angeles Times 3 of 5 Stars
"The book is imbued with local atmosphere and informed by sound knowledge of the history and the culture of this particular corner of the Turkish Empire: Mesopotamia, or what we now know all too well as Iraq. … Too often it is stiff with wooden dialogue and obvious plotting the reader can see coming a mile off." Martin Rubin

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 3 of 5 Stars
"Land of Marvels, rather than a cautionary tale of the lure of oil, becomes an action thriller with predictable plot lines. With a little tweaking and Indiana Jones features, it holds possibilities for a Hollywood film of intrigue and mystery." Bob Hoover

New Yorker 2.5 of 5 Stars
"There is something of E. M. Forster in Unsworth’s knowing depiction of a decaying empire run by upper-class incompetents, and in his generous and sympathetic portrayal of women caught between cultures, but he falters in the execution: the plot is that of a thriller, yet the story unfolds at the leisurely pace of a somewhat distracted teatime conversation."

Critical Summary

Most critics praised this historical novel; differences in opinion centered on execution rather than subject matter. All agreed that Land of Marvels offers a compelling portrait of the Iraq of nearly a century ago, with reverberations for our own involvement in the region today. Unsworth expertly sets a scene and imbues his story with local color, drama, and impressive knowledge of archaeology and geology. However, some reviewers noted the unevenness of Unsworth’s characters—the relatively flat Jehar, for example, compared with the richly drawn Lord Rampling. Others faulted a somewhat predictable plot and the thriller’s leisurely pace. However, readers hoping for a historical and entertaining read—and a lesson into the transitory nature of empires—will not be disappointed.

Also by the Author

Sacred Hunger (1992): F Booker Prize. The sacred hunger of the title is greed—that which leads William Kemp, reeling from losses in cotton speculation, to enter the slave trade, circa 1750. We see the horror onboard ship and off, and learn that "nothing a man suffers will prevent him from inflicting suffering on others. Indeed, it will teach him the way."