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Land of Marvels by Barry Unsworth
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Land of Marvels

by Barry Unsworth

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A young archaeologist is trying to make his name in a dig in Iraq in the summer before WWI, and he is racing to find something interesting before the German's build a railway line through his dig site. Meanwhile, the English send an American to look for oil in the area.

There were some intriguing things here, but for being such a short novel it had too many characters - they all remained one-dimensional. There were long rambling tangents about ancient Mesopotamia, which were of course relevant to the archaeological dig, but from what I could see they didn't really add anything to the story. The end was highly disappointing.

I think the problem is that Unsworth was trying to make a point instead of trying to tell a story. He's much more concerned about showing his reader why Middle Eastern politics are a mess, and how the rest of the world used the Middle East like a giant chessboard, than about telling a story. It feels like he decided he had made his point, and then couldn't decide how to end the story, and then just wrote a really horrible cop-out ending at the very last minute.

What redeemed the book for me was Unsworth's writing - he is an excellent writer - but the writing didn't make up for the bad storyline. ( )
1 vote Gwendydd | Sep 23, 2012 |
In this novel of Mesopotamia in 1914, a stiff upper lipped Englishman is in charge of an archaeological dig, but those confounded chaps intent on organising a war won’t let him get on with it and it’s a dashed nuisance. And if that weren’t enough there’s an awful lot of bally nonsense over oil.

Enter the loquacious American oil man, like an early version of George Dubya, the sort of guy who in a film would have been played by Clint Eastwood or somesuch, and who has clearly been introduced to shake everyone up and sleep with people he shouldn’t.

The characters line up like an Agatha Christie murder mystery – there’s even the old army man with a toothbrush moustache, and elegant lady wife in her sunhat who actively participates in her own repression. The cast are assembled, and there will obviously be some kind of dramatic interplay between them but it’s not clear until things really get going at the end who’s meant to be the goody and who will be the baddie.

So far so good, but my main problem with the novel was that the early stages were too slow. All those lengthy descriptions of archaeological artefacts made my eyes glaze over like an Assyrian vase. If only some of the drama of those closing scenes could have been relocated this would have been as great as the blurb suggested. ( )
  jayne_charles | Sep 9, 2012 |
Can't really fault this book. Other reviewers seem to dislike the slow pace at the beginning but, for me, this just added to the depth and set up the themes brilliantly. In fact there was a slight danger of slipping into farce when the momentum started to get going in earnest towards the end but this was cleverly avoided. The theme of falsehood and truth was given a thorough workout on many, many different levels - international relations, historical, personal relationships, war, politics (I could go on). One of my favourite reads of the past few years. ( )
  davidhillier | Jan 4, 2012 |
Picked this up along with several other library book possibilities for a 'U' author to read. Didn't expect it to grab me but it easily hooked me in for the first half of the book. After that though I found it easy to put down again. Everyone else seems to concur that the ending is faster moving than the beginning but I lost interest as the book went on. Probably one of those 'It's not the book, it's just me' things! ( )
  nocto | Aug 30, 2011 |
  MightyLeaf | May 25, 2010 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0385520077, Hardcover)

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.

Historical fiction at its finest, Land of Marvels opens a window on the past and reveals its lasting impact.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:44:52 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

In this thriller set in the Middle East of 1914, Somerville, a British archaeologist, and his team are excavating a long-buried Assyrian palace when an American geologist from an oil company posing as an archaeologist arrives one day and insinuates himself into Somerville's group. But he's not the only one working undercover to stake a claim on Iraq's rich oil fields.… (more)

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W.W. Norton

An edition of this book was published by W.W. Norton.

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