Land of Marvels
By Barry Unsworth
(Nan A. Talese, Hardcover, 9780385520072, 304pp.)
Publication Date: January 6, 2009
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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.
BARRY UNSWORTH, who won the Booker Prize for Sacred Hunger, was a Booker finalist for Pascali’s Island and Morality Play, and was long-listed for the Booker Prize for The Ruby in Her Navel. His other works include The Songs of the Kings, After Hannibal, and Losing Nelson. He lives in Italy.
- Land of Marvels centers on some central themes, such as fidelity, justice, power, honesty, and accountability. How does Land of Marvels depict these themes? Is it optimistic?
“A richly imagined novel squarely in the tradition of his Booker Prize triumph, Sacred Hunger. Unsworth has an Austen-esque flair for character and an uncanny ability to bring the past to life."
–Geraldine Brooks, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of March
“This is the work of a master: lean, elegant, and wise, weaving the doomed ambitions of two fallen empires into a compelling story that also deftly comments on the American presence in Iraq."
–Andrea Barrett, National Book Award-winning author of Ship Fever
“Land Of Marvels is up to Unsworth’s highest standard, featuring a cast of fascinating characters thrown together in the desert of Mesopotamia just before the Great War, all furiously digging for the past and turning up the future. American readers will recognize the landscape and learn some surprising facts about how we got exactly where we are right now. As well a great read, Land of Marvels is an important book.”
–Valerie Martin, Orange Prize-winning author of Property
“An intriguing story, elegantly and eloquently told.”
–Peter Ackroyd, bestselling author of London: The Biography
“Immensely intelligent and entertaining… Not only does [Unsworth] confidently steer a complicated narrative populated by numerous characters, all of them believable and interesting, but he displays an impressive command of archaeology and geology, difficult subjects that are at the center of his story… Land of Marvels can-and I believe should-be read as a corrective to the arrogance and overweening self-confidence that led the United States into the morass of Iraq, but it also is a reminder that nothing is forever… but it also can be read as singularly skillful entertainment. Its characters are real, its prose is fluid, its sense of place is pervasive, and its ending is exactly right, on a note of loss, survival and irony. All in all, a lovely, memorable book.”
-Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post
“Unsworth assembles his layers with the subtlety you would expect from a renowned, if restrained, historical novelist and Booker Prize winner… Amid the tension, and some deft characterization, Unsworth's themes of extraction and exploitation are irresistible… Unsworth's denouement is dramatic and richly symbolic…. In Land of Marvels Unsworth succeeds in summoning the demons and the angels of Iraq's present and past. Not bad for a volume you could read in an afternoon.”
-The New York Times Book Review
“[Unsworth’s] work is as clean as Hemingway’s and as dark as Conrad’s, and it’s braced with a loathing of exploitative power... In seamless prose Unsworth exposes his characters’ myriad ulterior motives, all of which mirror today’s news. The conclusion is shocking, but the real triumph is the book’s commentary on modern Iraq... Beautifully disguised as a literary thriller, the novel is a reminder that if we continue on our present course we won’t just be doomed to repeat history, we will be doomed utterly.”
“One can't help but ponder the what-ifs while reading British author Barry Unsworth's intrigue-fueled historical novel Land of Marvels… Unsworth's portrayals are sensitive and, to an extent, empathetic, giving the story a humanity it otherwise would not possess… Unsworth isn't just spinning a good historical yarn here. Land of Marvels holds up a mirror to our own grand and maybe misguided ambitions in a region that is no less explosive, no less paved with grand and dubious intentions today.”
“In a way, to call Land of Marvels a murder mystery or thriller is to undersell its considerable qualities. There is mystery aplenty--and murder--but there's a lot more going on here, as is always the case with Unsworth. The book is imbued with local atmosphere and informed by sound knowledge of the history and the culture of this particular corner of the Turkish Empire: Mesopotamia, or what we now know all too well as Iraq.”
-Los Angeles Times
“With his usual light hand, [Unsworth] keeps the story snapping along, setting up plot twists galore in an atmosphere that approaches a drawing-room comedy, complete with intrigues among the ruins.”
-The Boston Phoenix
“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.”
"With measured prose that builds steadily in suspense, Unsworth does an excellent job at simultaneously evoking a past era and foreshadowing American involvement in the modern Middle East."
“One hopes this rich narrative may inspire a film version enlisting the talents of Ralph Fiennes, Kristin Scott Thomas, Ben Kingsley and their peers. A transfixing melodrama alive with crackling suspense, sharply drawn characters, intense historical relevance and ideas in action. Absorbing and irresistible.”
-Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Unsworth here offers historical fiction at its best. [Land of Marvels] provides some insight into current political divisions in the Middle East as it explores the power and limitations of storytelling…. Unsworth [draws] characters with depth and complexity.”
-Library Journal (starred review)
“The tension between the players builds toward a violent, unexpected finale. In elegantly modulated prose, Unsworth creates a tapestry of ambition and greed while, at the same time, foreshadowing the current conflict in the region.”