The rise of a world power in Mesopotamia

2009-06-10 00:00


Land of Marvels

Barry Unsworth




SET in Ottoman-run Mesopotamia in 1914 at an archaeological excavation that is the project of an Englishman named Somerville, the novel uncovers layers of ambition and deception in its many characters. It also delves into the nature of empires that rise and fall over thousands of years.

Mesopotamia (a region of present-day Iraq) was a magnet for Europeans, and in the book some dig for remains of the great empires of the past, others dig to construct a pioneering railway line, and still others dig for oil. When a diversity of characters connected to these pursuits converge at Somerville’s archeological site the plot strands mesh with the complexity of a thriller.

Jehar, an Arab in Somerville’s employ, is portrayed in a stereotypical fashion, but then most of the English characters are too. The characters are representative of different personality types and interest groups and, thriller-style, it is what they do that provides the interest.

This book has a slow start, and although the descriptions of archaeology and ancient dynasties are interesting, the uncovering of details in dinner-table talk, in the silent musings of a sleepless Somerville and in conversations between himself and his assistant, for example, can be on the clunky side of painstaking. But with the arrival of the American, Elliott, with his passion for oil and an eye for Somerville’s wife, the pace quickens.

Somerville yearns to find out about the demise of the long-gone Assyrian kings even as the imminence of world war portends the demise of the world’s current empires. At the same time oil, and the American Elliot’s enthusiasm for its apparent promise, prefigures the rise of a yet new world power.

Different readers may uncover different layers of interest, meaning and resonance. But I found it all to be a bit too shallow.

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