Land of Marvels

When I was a child, I had a brief obsession with Egyptology. My brother had been to London to see the exhibition of treasures from Tutankhamun’s tomb and brought back a gorgeous full colour catalogue. I loved reading this over and over, fascinated by the beautiful, exotic objects that had been discovered, entranced by hieroglyphs and the faintly menacing figures of Egyptian gods, Ra, Isis, Osiris. Lapis lazuli was for a long time my most evocative term.

So I was inevitably drawn to Barry Unsworth’s novel, Land of Marvels, which concerns an archaeological dig and is set in 1914, just prior to the start of World War I, but in the middle of the fierce competition to uncover the lost treasures of the ancient world. An English archaeologist, Somerville, has put his family’s money into directing an excavation in the deserts of Mesopotamia, a country that will one day become Iraq, but which is still part of the crumbling Ottoman Empire. Somerville has much to prove, to himself and to others. His wife is losing faith in him and his money is running out, and above all else he desperately longs for recognition in his field.  His commitment to the project borders on an unhealthy obsession but he feels obscurely and relentlessly targeted by fate. Somerville is a vividly drawn character, in whom paranoia tends to undercut the genuine brilliance of his mind, and as Tell Erdek, the unpromising mound of earth he has chosen to dig, begins to reveal its spectacular secrets, so his operation looks increasingly threatened in ways that risk unsettling the balance of his mind.

This is a novel essentially about territory, and the ongoing fight for it that dominates the male imagination. The powers of Europe are aware that this part of the world is on the brink of internal collapse and, with the threat of war looming, many interested parties are looking to win a cut of the spoils. The Germans are building a railway that will cut a swathe through the country and, Somerville fears, run straight through the middle of his dig. A historian’s interest looks very unconvincing when set against the power of commerce and money. When Somerville goes to his old friend, the Ambassador, to ask for government protection for the site, he ends up embroiled in another covert battle. He is asked to offer hospitality to an American, Alex Eliot, who will arrive in the guise of an archaeologist, but who is in fact assessing the land for the presence of oil. Eliot is supposedly in the pay of the snazzily dressed Lord Rampling, a mover and shaker who is trying to strengthen British links abroad and solidify the Empire. But in reality he is a double agent, and a seducer at that, as he sets his sights on Somerville’s disgruntled wife.

Against the backdrop of these ongoing events, Barry Unsworth cleverly unfolds the stories of the lost Assyrian kings, a dynasty known for its brutality and dictatorial command. What is most brilliant about the book is the way that it uses history as a palimpsest, which is to say, as a series of stories written on top of one another, whose traces are never fully erased. The archaeological dig works beautifully as a metaphor, as Somerville pieces together the last days of the Assyrian Empire from his finds, whilst all around him, quietly violent struggles for power go on and the first World War casts its long shadow in the reader’s mind. We know that all this wheeling and dealing will come to nothing on the bloody battlefields of Europe, we know that vast quantities of oil will be discovered in the middle East, and that it will be the cause of more conflict and bloodshed. I did not realize that oil and its potential were so recent a discovery – to think that we have discovered oil and almost exhausted its reserves within the century is extremely unsettling. We are every bit as rapacious and greedy as our supposedly primitive ancestors, only we have taken this land of marvels as our victim and plundered it for its treasures and precious resources.

There is much to recommend this novel, but I must point out that it is very learned and erudite. A great deal of information is delivered to the reader, more, really, than is necessary, on geology, on the Assyrians, on trade and industry in 1914 (not all of which I followed). It is beautifully written and rich in meaning, but in some ways I enjoyed thinking about it more than I enjoyed the actual experience of reading it. If you came fresh from Agatha Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia to this, say, you would find it a bit of a shock. However, it is well plotted and manages to flesh out its characters, despite having the fundamental outline of a thriller, and the vast majority of the information it has to offer is interesting and evocative. I would certainly read Barry Unsworth again, and I’d like to read more about the archaeologists from the early part of the twentieth century. They continue to fascinate.

15 thoughts on “Land of Marvels

  1. That sounds fascinating, Litlove. I’m intrigued by the historical layers and the use of the dig and archaeology that way. I also went through on Egyptology phase and at one time had imagined a sublot of a novel (I’m always imagining far-fetched sublots) that would have involved a dig about 10 years earlier in the middle-east.

  2. If you enjoyed this, you must read his book Sacred Hunger , which remains in my mind as one of the standout reading experiences of my entire life. I think the curiosity of the book being more enjoyable to think about than to read is characteristic of Unsworth’s work … although Sacred Hunger has a lot of excellent character and plot, there is that same quality of the reader being educated with a depth and detail which are rare in fiction.

  3. Really enjoyed your review of this Litlove. I’ve had it on my shelf and just haven’t gotten around to it but good to know it’s a bit more on the “heavy” reading side. I don’t mind just good to be prepared. Have you read any of his other books? I read Morality Play years ago and was really amazed at his writing.

  4. Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody books made me interested in archaeology in this period. But I was crazy about Egyptian stuff when I was in middle school, which is why I still have an email address from the Egyptian pantheon of gods. Also, and less embarrassingly, I just read a book about Egyptian history in this period, and it piqued my interest.

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  6. Very interesting review. I’m interested by the idea of archaelogy and digging as a metaphor for psychology too. Freud certainly used his fascination with archaeology and Egypt in devising his ideas of the unconscious. And I love those stories upon stories.

  7. I assume all kids are brought up with a fascination of Eygpt and archeology because the uncovering of Tutunkhamun’s tomb is one of the funnest bits of history for teachers to cover and ancient Eygptian society seems so fantasy like. I like to think its one of those areas of historical interest that ties lots of us together. Also fondly remember Tintin books set in Eygpt so good memory connections all around ancient Eygpt. Like the sound of this one, although not sure how I’d get on with details of trade either.

  8. I went through an archaeology phase, too! This sounds really good–I love books that are rich in story and historical detail, though this one does sound on the heavy side (not a problem but good to keep in mind). I’ve never read Unsworth but I have several of his books on hand. I think I’ll have to add this one to the pile.

  9. I too was obsessed with Egyptology as a child, and that and the early twentieth-century setting really makes me want to read this one. I’ll keep the fact that it’s a book to take slowly in mind, though. I like the idea of all that erudition and detail, but I know it doesn’t necessarily make for easy reading, and it does sound like the kind of thing I’d enjoy all the more in retrospect.

  10. I just started Murder in Mesopotamia last night!! So, maybe I should look into this. The King Tut exhibit came to Chicago – could it be – 35 years ago or so (?). Was it really that long ago(?) and I was working downtown and went to see it. It was one of the most dazzling things I have ever seen. Are you familiar with the Elizabeth Peters mystery books starring archeologist Amelia Peabody? For reasons I can’t explain I’ve collected about five or six, although I’ve yet to read one.

  11. Oh, this sounds really good. My 4th grade teacher was a bit Tut crazy and so we learned all about Egypt in class and even had a project on writing hieroglyphics. Which is to say this book souncd like one I’d really like.🙂

  12. Lilian – It really works beautifully as a metaphor and such an interesting approach to the historical novel. I’m hoping you’ll return one day to your subplot with the dig!

    David – Sacred Hunger is mentioned on the front cover and I must say I am intrigued by it. How interesting that the depth and the detail and the thinkiness of the novel (if I can call it that) should be trademarks of Unsworth’s style. Reading just the one novel by him I couldn’t tell. You certainly spur me on to read more.

    iliana – this is the only one I’ve read, and I did pick it because I was interested in him as a writer. I’m delighted to hear such positive things from other bloggers whose opinion I respect.

    Jenny – you are on emailing terms with the Egyptian gods? Wow. I wouldn’t mind that myself. The Elizabeth Peters novels are not something I’ve got into, although I did listen to one once on audio book. It just taught me the wisdom of starting a series at the beginning as I was so aware of all the back story I’d missed. Perhaps I should try them again.

    Bluestocking – I’d love to know what you think of it!

    Pete – ooh good call with Freud – wasn’t it Gradiva that he wrote about? Ach, how my memory fails me these days; I will have to look it up again. I find myself very drawn to those structural topologies of the mind.

    Jodie – oh my, yes, Tintin! My son had a brief interest in those books (I think I may have enjoyed them more) and the archaeological dig is very much a Tintin situation. I wish I’d done Ancient Egypt in school – we did the most tedious eras possible, mott and bayley castles as far as the eye could see.

    Danielle – as you and iliana say, the heaviness is fine when you’re expecting it and ready for that sort of book. I would certainly recommend it to all lovers of the historical novel because what he does with it is so interesting. I’d love to know what you think of Unsworth when you get to reading him!

    Nymeth – you need time for it and it’s not the sort of book to read with a head cold. But those aren’t insurmountable obstacles, and it does repay an attentive read. When I think back on it, I remember all the details and the richness of the history and feel glad that I read it. I’d love to know what you think of it if you do get hold of it.

    Grad – yay for Murder in Mesopotamia!! How about that for a coincidence? I so wish I could have seen the exhibit myself – must have been amazing. And I did listen once to an Amelia Peabody mystery, but it was number 13 in the series and I felt very behind with all the character’s relationships. I’d love to know what you think of them when you get to pick one up!

    Stefanie – I’m so jealous of all the people who studied this in school! How fab must that have been? I’d love to know what you think of this book if you get hold of it. I can see that it might well be up your street.

  13. It sounds interesting. But I have to say that the thought of reading a book with a whole lot of information in it of the sort that is cumbersome to wade through is daunting. I’ve been impatient with fiction lately and have longed for books that I can’t put down, so a book with more information in it than it needs might not be for me. But still, the premise of the book sounds great!

  14. I was obsessed with Egyptology from about the age of 10 to 12 years old. My mom says it was the same for her. Maybe it is a weird right of passage for girls to go through an Egyptology stage? In any case this sounds like a wonderful read and one that would have me back in the library looking up all of those books I used to read about Howard Carter and the Temple of the Kings and the Rosetta Stone and etc, etc.!

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