Magazine article The Spectator

Conflicts of Interest?

Magazine article The Spectator

Conflicts of Interest?

Article excerpt

LAND OF MARVELS by Barry Unsworth Hutchinson, £18.99, pp. 287, ISBN 9780091926175 £15.19 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

Land of Marvels is so topical, and so cute, that its title can only be read with some irony.

A tale of oil, archaeology, and impending war in Mesopotamia (it's the first world war, but Barry Unsworth clearly intends us to ponder the parallels with more recent history), it is the sort of novel that has its characters deliver explanatory lectures as a matter of course.

It's also the sort of novel that concludes with a spiffy afterword letting us know what became of the main characters -- those, anyway, who were not consumed in the fireball that marks the end of the novel proper. That fireball, we are told in the afterword, 'featured prominently in the press for some days, and provided material for at least one novel'. At least one, eh? It's easy to see why Unsworth found it hard to resist a bit of a sophomoric fun at this point, because most of what proceeds it feels like such hard work.

Mind you, digging up Assyrian ruins is hard work, and so is making archaeology sexy in a novel. But that is the task Unsworth has set himself here, and you are perhaps curious to know how he goes about it.

His plot revolves around Somerville, an English archaeologist, who is conducting a frustratingly fruitless dig in the Mesopotamian desert in 1914. All he has turned up at the novel's opening is an ivory carving. (In Unsworth's description, it matches one that was discovered by Agatha Christie's husband, Sir Max Mallowan. Now in the holdings of the British Museum, its nearidentical pendant was looted from the Iraq Museum after the recent invasion; but none of this rather more interesting story makes it into Unsworth's fiction. ) Meanwhile, the tracks of a major railway are being laid not far away -- an ambitious piece of infrastructure, backed by various international interests. …

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