Barry Unsworth – Hutchinson - $36.99
His new book though is absolutely historical being set in early 1914 Mesopotamia, the remnants of the former Assyrian and Ottoman Empires, which today is Iraq. One should add that his research is impressive and must have been extensive.
The principal character is John Somerville, a British archeologist, who is the leader of a group excavating an ancient Assyrian palace. It is his third year on the site, he is just starting to make some important finds after two frustrating years but time and money are both running out.
The reader knows of course that World War One is rapidly approaching, the Germans are building a railway line from Berlin to Baghdad which is threatening the site, and along with the Germans the British and the Americans also have spies in the area and are all jostling for territorial influence because of the great reserves of oil recently discovered in the area. There is much rivalry and mutual suspicion and distrust and our archeologist becomes unwittingly caught up in all the skullduggery that is going on.
The book is a thriller really with a wonderful cast of characters from Somerville’s beautiful but sexually unsatisfied wife, a mysterious exquisitely dressed British Baron, a seemingly innocent and wide-eyed American, a local and most handsome lad whom Somerville employs to keep an eye on the German railroad, and his beautiful young girlfriend whom he needs money to buy from her uncle, there is Somerville’s young assistant Palmer and his fiancée who has intellectual pretensions, and a host of others all very well portrayed. There are several strands to the novel which all come together well at the end.
Unsworth is one of the most highly skilled contemporary British novelists, he won the Booker Prize for his 1992 novel, Sacred Hunger, was twice shortlisted for the Booker with Pascali’s Island and Morality Play, both historical novels, and was long listed for the Booker for The Ruby in Her Navel.
The only complaint I have about this book is that I feel it could have been quite a bit longer. At 280 pages it is about the size of the average novel but I reckon the separate strands in the novels, and their characters, could have been greatly expanded to the reader’s satisfaction. I wonder for example what authors like Vikram Seth or Tim Winton might have done with this storyline and list of characters. It should really be a 500 page thumper!
But that criticism aside I greatly enjoyed Land of Marvels and warmly recommend it, especially to those that like historical novels with a twist.