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LAND OF MARVELS by Barry Unsworth Kirkus Star


by Barry Unsworth

Pub Date: Jan. 6th, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-385-52007-2
Publisher: Talese/Doubleday

The Booker Prize–winning British author’s latest novel is a tale of archaeological exploration and global political cross-purposes, set in the former Mesopotamia (now Iraq) in the immediate pre-war year of 1914.

When obsessed researcher John Somerville attempts to unearth a buried Assyrian palace that lies directly in the path of a German-built railroad line leading to Baghdad, rival international interests collide in the area of the dig (a mound known as Tell Erdek). British diplomat Major Manning, scheming oil magnate Baron Rampling, Somerville’s assistant Palmer (encouraged by his love interest Patricia, an educated woman committed to feminist advancement) and Somerville’s neglected, resentful wife Edith enact a dance of mutual involvement, estrangement and conflict that’s disturbed by two manipulative “outsiders.” American petroleum geologist Alex Elliott, ostensibly employed by Rampling but driven by a more complex agenda, easily infiltrates both Somerville’s activities and Edith’s starved affections. And Arab interpreter-factotum Jehar (whose name bears a sly echo of “Jihad”) works against his employers’ priorities, consumed by his love for a beautiful young Circassian girl. As tell-tale “Layers of Parthian, Byzantine, Roman occupation…[are] found,” Somerville anticipates scholarly fame for having deciphered mysteries related to once-glorious Assyrian kings. But much more is at stake than his love of the past, and as plotlines are skillfully drawn together, the ingenuous prophecy of a visiting pair of biblical archaeologists who seek the site of the Garden of Eden is fulfilled—as “the danger of human overreaching” precipitates a literally explosive climax. 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.