Thursday, 25 March 2010

Land of Marvels by Barry Unsworth


DATE READ: March 2010

NOTES: Barry Unsworth never lets me down – Land of Marvels is a lovely read and a cracking good story. Somerville, an English archaeologist, is directing an excavation in Mesopotamia. It is 1914 and hostilities are already looming and encroaching on his work. He has invested him own money in the project and is desperately hoping that something of real value and interest will be found – thus ensuring his acceptance by the academic community. His wife is with him but she has little interest in his work – even though it was his enthusiasm and ambition that first attracted her.

The Germans are financing a railway line which Somerville suspects will be routed right through where he is excavating so he feels he must proceed with all due haste. He is persuaded by a somewhat shady British businessman and the ambassador in Constantinople to take on an American called Elliott. He is asks to pretend that Elliott is a fellow historian when in fact he is a geologist looking for oil deposits. But Elliott’s loyalties do not lie with the British.

Land of Marvels is superbly researched. Knowing very little about Assyrian or Babylonian history I found myself checking to see whether the facts given were correct. (Yes, they were!) The characterisations were all very believable – from the wily Jehar to the practical Patricia. Somerville can be viewed as someone of the “old world” interested in academic pursuit and learning. Elliott is very “new world” – dynamic, ambitious and skilled.

There are some interesting imperialist attitudes. When some interesting things are found in the dig Somerville assumes confidently that they should all be transported to England. The German engineers are granted ownership of the land surrounding the railway. Elliott knows that any oil he finds will profit an American company.

Churchill prophesied: “He who owns the oil will own the world…” How true.

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