Land of Marvels is a novel about the decline and fall of empires. It is set in 1914, with the First World War looming.
The great powers are competing to gain influence in the oil rich Ottoman Empire, the region known today as the Middle East.
Somerville, an English archaeologist, and his entourage are directing an excavation in the desert of Mesopotamia, today’s Iraq, and get caught up in the intrigue, plotting and backstabbing of the great power rivalry.
The great powers and oil companies are sending out spies to survey what might be on offer in a post-war carve up. Some of these latch on to the excavation.
Through weaving the two elements of archaeology and geopolitics together, Barry Unsworth is seeking to make a point about the fallibility of empires.
The artefacts of once great Middle Eastern empires are uncovered, leading to the characters reflecting on the future of the British Empire.
There is a contrast drawn between what the archaeologists are doing and the logic of war.
As one of the characters says, “People trying to put things together, add to the sense of human community, are facing a contrary spirit of dismemberment and destructiveness.”
This novel of historical interest also has the feel of a spy thriller. However, I felt the plot was patchy. At times it worked well, while at others it dragged a bit, with some fairly long historical digressions.
Also, Jehar, the only Arab character, is very underdeveloped.
This means that Land of Marvels doesn’t give a real sense of the lives and feelings of the native inhabitants, on whose land the colonial scramble was being played out.
Land of Marvels
by Barry Unsworth
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