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In the fine, largely neglected The Idol Hunter (1980), Unsworth viewed the imminent collapse of the Ottoman Empire, circa 1908, through the eyes of one of the Sultan's many freelance spies. Here, in a longer, more conventional, but somewhat less satisfying novel, he returns to that moment in history--with the focus on a British army officer stationed in Constantinople. Capt. Robert Markham, living with his wife and young son within sight of the Sultan's palace (back-and-forth watching is the prime narrative motif here), is in Turkey as a sort of ally, to arrange for ""peacekeeping"" forces in Macedonia--where rebellions and atrocities are a problem. But Markham's heart lies elsewhere: over a decade before he was engaged to an Armenian girl--who died in a massacre while Markham, as an Englishman, survived. (Since that evening, ""when he had been in such craven haste to proclaim his identity. . . he belonged to nothing."") So now, driven by guilt, he finds himself taking risks in order to cancel out that long-ago betrayal: in native disguise, he tries to warn an Armenian supporter of the Young Turk movement that he's in danger from the Sultan's spies; later, after the Sultan's fall has begun, he agrees to help the Armenian nationalists combat ethnic propaganda, only to find himself in a trap, framed for murder; and he finally tries to rescue a Sultan-imprisoned Armenian from certain death. All these efforts are futile, of course. Even Turkey's change-of-government is futile--in that the new regime continues to butcher Armenians. And, throughout, Markham's doomed cross-cultural strivings, the betrayals, are echoed in domestic matters: his son Henry has a Turkish playmate--but she is terminally ill, while Henry nearly dies from typhoid fever; and Markham violently seduces Henry's governess--an affair that is given imperialistic overtones. . . heavyhandedly. Throughout, in fact, Unsworth's elaborate thematic framework this time often seems unduly belabored (unlike the delicate theme-weaving of The Idol Hunter). And Markham's political/existential angst is, for the most part, more literary than lifelike. But readers with an interest in this historical territory--and a yen for leisurely, formally structured fiction in the E. M. Forster tradition--will find generous pleasure here: the elegant prose, the splendidly rendered exotica (from glimpses of the mad Sultan to a harrowing interview with his Chief Eunuch), and the suave handling of the period's political complexities.

Pub Date: Feb. 22nd, 1982
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin