Reading Barry Unsworth has been a hit-and-miss proposition for me. I started with Stone Virgin (1985), a delightful novel set in Venice spread over three time periods that features, among other things, a very canny servant who keeps his decaying master and himself alive by selling pages from the erotic memoir his master is writing to the subjects of the tale. Sacred Hunger (1992) was a co-winner of the Booker Prize (with Canadian Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient). Its length (600 plus pages) and subject matter (the Atlantic slave trade) scared me off reading it for a number of years — when I did get to it, I found it a memorable book.
Unsworth’s two other Booker short-listed titles, Pascali’s Island (1980) and Morality Play (1995) landed just on the positive side of the hit-miss spectrum. While most of his work is historical fiction, two non-hisorical novels (The Hide (1970) and After Hannibal (1995)) were both delightful reads. Unsworth has been living in Italy since he won the Booker — if you are thinking about buying and restoring a property there for your retirement, read After Hannibal before making the investment.
Unfortunately, his most recent books — Losing Nelson (1999), The Songs of the Kings (2oo2) and The Ruby in Her Navel (2006) – were misses. Even worse, his new book Land of Marvels, also belongs in that category, at least for this reader.
The novel is set in 1914 in Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq, for those who weren’t there that day in Ancient History class). Its central character is a British gentleman archaeologist, Somerville, who sold the family firm shortly after he inherited it to finance his expeditions to Tell Erdek, a mound that he is convinced contains the secrets of the decline of the Assyrian empire in 600 B.C. Dreams of presentations to the Royal Society in London and perhaps a gallery featuring his finds at the British Museum fuel his vision of the future.
Alas, his vision in the present, from his dig, includes the shacks and warehouses of the Baghdad Railway, a Constantinople to Basra link that a German firm has been constructing, off and on, since 1903. If completed it will change both the economy and politics of this region forever. More important for Somerville, it appears that its construction may involve blowing up the site of his dig.
Given the times, British and French interests are not particularly interested in letting the Germans have this railway to themselves. From his base in Constantinople, Lord Rampling, more a businessman than a lord, is doing his best to make sure Britain and France get a piece of the action. The area around Tell Erdek also features bitumen swamps and pits, long valued for their pitch. Now that Churchill has switched the British navy from steam to oil and Henry Ford is selling his Model Ts, the Age of Petroleum has arrived. Enter Alexander Elliott, an American geologist with ties to Standard Oil and the Chester Group, whom Lord Rampling embeds in Somerville’s crew posing as an archaeologist while he does his surveys on the oil deposits that are obviously there. Elliott is actually a triple agent (that isn’t a spoiler) with separate contracts with American, British and German interests.
All of this takes place with the looming prospect of the Great War and the even more likely fall of the Ottoman Empire which is watching its control of the region slip. When it falls, Britain, France and the U.S. (I was there that day, so I know it happens) will carve up the remnants of the Empire in a disastrous fashion, the price of which is being paid to this day. Obviously, all of these elements were present not just in 1914 — they are what fuels the current crisis that has already cost tens of thousands of lives and produced the dislocation of millions of people.
The story also needs, and has, an indigenous element. Jehar is an Arab who serves as Somerville’s eyes and ears in the local community. His goal is to get 100 pounds out of the Englishman — the price a nearby cafe owner has set on his niece whom Jehar wants to marry.
Certainly, the elements of a great story are there. The conflict between preserving history and development. The birth of new commercial orders. Tensions between empires — fading, currently strong and developing. All told by flawed individuals who have their own interests and problems.
Too many elements, perhaps? For this reader, definitely yes. Given all that is going on, a publisher’s blurb describing this book would normally feature some phrase like “a tale of epic proportions” — Doubleday’s North American dust jacket opts for the somewhat less enthusiastic (but equally inaccurate) “historical fiction at its finest”. Land of Marvels is only 287 pages long and that simply isn’t enough to tell all those stories — and in no way does that represent a wish that Unsworth had added another few hundred pages.
Given all that the author has set out to do, he simply has to spend too much time supplying background facts for his story (if there were days in high school devoted to the Assyrian Empire, I was away — I don’t seem to have missed much). When he is not doing that, he needs to move various storylines forward.
The result is a book that does a lot of telling and not very much showing. None of the stories ever coalesce to have a life of their own. None of the characters (with the possible exception of Somerville) ever get developed. The over-arching political and economic storylines get talked about, but always remotely — they never come to life.
So when the book finishes, you know more about the Assyrian empire, early 20th century archaeology and salt domes that trap oil, but not much more. I’m pretty sure the author meant the book to have modern relevance — if you have been reading the newspapers or watching CNN at all in the last five years, it doesn’t add much.
Unsworth’s Land of Marvels joins Patrick McCabe’s The Holy City (reviewed earlier on this site) as the first books by Booker “names” to appear in 2009. With Amis, Atwood and Toibin — among others — all scheduled to have books published later this year, it promises to a be a bountiful year for Booker “names”. Land of Marvels needs to get attention now — I would be very surprised if it is on the Booker longlist when it is released in July.