Barry Unsworth, Booker Prize winner for Sacred Hunger, has set many of his novels—some historical, some contemporary—in the region where Western culture originated: Greece, Turkey, Italy and the Middle East. His latest, Land of Marvels, takes place at the heart of what is often referred to as the "cradle of civilization"—the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers historically called Mesopotamia. Set in 1914, on the eve of World War I, Unsworth's intriguing fiction concerns the two local commodities, antiquities and oil, that have shaped the destiny of the territory that would become modern-day Iraq.
John Somerville, a British archeologist, has spent the last three years excavating Tell Erdek, a site he believes contains important Assyrian ruins that, if unearthed, will make his reputation. A methodical, restrained man, Somerville is nonetheless perturbed by a railway line being built by the Germans, which he fears will compromise, perhaps even obliterate, his dig. He has hired a local Arab, Jehar, to act as an informal spy, paying the young man for information about the progress of the railroad as it draws near.
Somerville is a scholar who keeps the politics of the region at arm's length, but with a European war imminent, there are many others who are jockeying behind the scenes for control of the area's resources and strategic position. When Somerville travels to Constantinople to solicit the aid of the British ambassador in diverting the German rail route, he is surprised to encounter Lord Rampling, a powerful man of shadowy reputation, at the meeting. In return for help with the railroad issue, Rampling, who claims to be acting in Britain's best interests, asks Somerville to play host to an American geologist, who will masquerade as a visiting archeologist while in truth undertaking oil exploration. Focused only on his own crusade against the German trains, Somerville agrees.
The arrival of the self-assured American at Tell Erdek changes the dynamic of the insular little group, particularly in regard to Somerville's wife, who begins an affair with the dashing Alexander Elliott. Thoroughly immersed in his work as he closes in on an Assyrian burial chamber, Somerville remains oblivious to the affair, and he is equally unaware of Jehar's growing discontent. The Arab, who has fallen in love with a girl and desperately needs to raise the bride price required to marry her, devises a dangerous scheme to secure the money. Somerville, himself desperate to keep the German railway at bay, foolishly agrees to the plan. Soon the once quiet archeological camp is percolating with intrigue, and the various strands of the story converge with violence consequences. vUnsworth devotes large sections of Land of Marvels to explicating the ancient history behind Somerville's quest, and readers with an interest in Middle Eastern archeology will relish having this history told with such fluent grace. He also gives pages over to the geology of oil exploration, managing to explain things without getting bogged down in dry scientific writing. With so much attention paid to these details, though, the story sometimes suffers, and it doesn't really begin to gel until about halfway into the book. Then, once the plot gets rolling, it all comes together too quickly. At times the motives and actions of major characters are predictable, and some of the minor players remain a bit sketchily drawn, sometimes bordering on stock characters. One humorous subplot involving some Swedish religious zealots looking to build a hotel on the site of the Garden of Eden is, sadly, given short shrift.
What Unsworth does best here is portray the collision of cultures and political and economic interests that, with the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire a few years later, would lead to the drawing of questionable national boundaries, giving Britain control of the newly named Iraq, and planting the seeds of discontent that, some 85 years later, would find the United States invading a country it did not fully understand. Land of Marvels is subtle in the connections it makes between then and now, but the discerning reader can see clearly the hand of fate planting those seeds of luckless destiny.