Sunday, January 4, 2009

Land of Marvels by Barry Unsworth

Flap copy from ARC:
"In Land of Marvels, a thriller set in 1914, [Unsworth] brings to life the schemes and double-dealings of Western nations grappling for a foothold in Mesopotamia 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 Christine, Somerville's beautiful, bored wife; Patricia, a smart young graduate student; and Jehar, and 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."

I chose to read this book because I once dreamed of becoming an archaeologist, and having lived in the region, I was especially interested in the early history of the search for oil. Let me start out by saying that the book is definitely a better read than the flap copy might lead you to believe. The narrative focus on this small group works extremely well, and serves to underscore the myriad of competing interests focused on the region at the time.

Unsworth is a skilled writer, and all of the characters (no matter how unlikeable) are fully drawn and add value to the story. The main problem I had was that I really just couldn't get myself to like any of the characters, despite their backstories. Even when I found their actions completely understandable, I still didn't really feel that invested in the outcomes. In the end, the utter futility of the entire enterprise was crystal clear, lending itself so well to disturbing comparisons to the current situation in Iraq.

This was a solid read, 3.5 stars for me just because I never felt that emotional connection to the characters, and I will certainly look for Unsworth's Booker Prize winning Sacred Hunger to read.

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