Land of Marvels, by Barry Unsworth


unsworthReading 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.

22 Responses to “Land of Marvels, by Barry Unsworth”

  1. dovegreyreader Says:

    Kevin I have semi-skimmed this post because I have Land of Marvels here waiting to read. I haven’t read a Barry Unsworth that I have loved for several years, in fact failed miserably with his last Booker longlister The Ruby in Her Navel, and was wondering whether this one might signal a return to the Unsworth form that appeals to me. I see your last line and it looks as if not. I’ll report back.


  2. Trevor Berrett Says:

    I had sort of mixed feelings about Sacred Hunger too. On the one hand, I felt the story was excellent. On the other, I didn’t care for Unsworth’s writing. It sounds like this one might be similar. Glad to hear your opinion on it because I now don’t think I have to read it!


  3. KevinfromCanada Says:

    DGR, Trevor: While I will never discourage anyone from reading a book, if you have a TBR pile I think you can locate this one pretty far down the pile. For me, comparisons with The Ruby in Her Navel are quite fair — and this is definitely no Sacred Hunger, whatever weaknesses that novel may have.

    And something I wanted to insert in the review but thought it was already too long, however your comments open the possibility.

    Pub literary trivia question: Who is the only author who will ever be the co-winner of both the Booker and Giller Prizes?

    Okay, the review gives the answer away with the Michael Ondaatje reference. He was co-winner of the 2000 Giller with Anil’s Ghost (with David Adams Richard’s Mercy Amongst The Children ). Jack Rabinovitch ponied up the extra $25,000 for that double award — juries are now told they have to come up with a single book.


  4. dovegreyreader Says:

    Awwww, you gave the answer away, I was just going to try and work that out over the next few hours!


  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Sorry, I should have made it into a contest but I didn’t know how to hide the entries. Besides, I’m pretty sure a lot of people who visit here would have got it. The question and answer are meant as a reward for loyal visitors to the site who want to win free drinks when they are out with people who think they know a lot about books.

    Speaking of which, I got a 20 pound discount offer from Virgin Wines with my latest Book Depository delivery. Since the idea of shipping wines across the Atlantic is a bit much (and since it would appear to require a case purchase — the discount goes up to 40 pounds if you order some special selection they have) and since the coupon is meant to be redeemed online, I am certainly willing to forward redemption code information to the first person who wants it.


  6. claire Says:

    Hi Kevin, I’m so happy to see you blogging! I lurk over at Trevor’s and John Self’s and Stewart’s and I enjoy your comments a lot. Just to let you know, you have an award over at my blog:

    Btw, thanks for this post, as I’ve been meaning to read Sacred Hunger this year. Happy week! 😀


  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Hello to you claire — and I do know your name (and appreciate your comments) from the other blogs. I’m glad you have dropped in on mine. And thanks for the award — I think it may make me the first blogger in history to garner an award during his first week of publication. Cheers, Kevin


  8. John Self Says:

    I thought it might be interesting to link to this review of the book by confirmed Unsworth-lover, Lizzy Siddal.

    My only experience of Unsworth (like you, Kevin, I was daunted by the size of Sacred Hunger, but unlike you, I never got over it) is Morality Play, which I read because it was highly praised and very short. Even so, I couldn’t get through it.

    I must say I like the North American cover to this book much more than the UK cover (seen in Lizzy’s review).


  9. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Oh dear.

    You say “Certainly, the elements of a great story are there.”, and it’s absolutely true isn’t it? Had I not known going in that you hadn’t liked the book, I’d have been expecting a review of something marvellous. Even knowing that, as you described the elements of the novel I found myself hoping that your objections would be ones that weren’t so important to my own tastes since the description you give really makes it sound fascinating.

    But unfortunately, it sounds like the problems are fundamental, just too much material in too little space but without enough of interest to make you wish for more. It sounds like a tremendous idea for a novel, but sadly it doesn’t sound like a tremendous novel.

    Which returns me to, oh dear. Thanks for taking the hit on this one Kevin, if I’d seen a description of this without a review I’d have bought it in a heartbeat, it may still go on my TBR pile one day but if it does it will not be near the top of the pile.


  10. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Many thanks for the link to Lizzy’s review, which I had not seen. When I find a book wanting — particularly when it comes from an author whom I respect — I do try to look for something that might cause other readers to have a more positive reaction. I have to admit I couldn’t find anything in Land of Marvels beyond the obvious political links in the story. While they didn’t do much for me, maybe someone who has read less journalism about the conflict in Iraq would find it more satisfying. And I am glad that visitors here can link to someone who found more in the book than I did. Max, you might want to check Lizzy’s review — my guess is that it will tend to confirm your current impression.

    I too like the North American cover better. I appreciate your efforts in providing us covers of both U.K. and North American versions — it is very interesting to note that there seems to be no pattern (sometimes one is more edgy than the other — half the time the U.K, half the time the N.A.) and I’d say my preference also is probably close to a 50-50 split.


  11. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I’ll check out Lizzy’s review. I know what you mean about wnating to look for something positive, when I wrote up Tobacco Road I linked to an off-site review I’d found which was much more positive about the work than I felt able to be.

    I know a reasonable bit about Assyria, not vast but more than many I suspect, but I’ve also read up a lot on Iraq and I fear more knowledge may make the expository passages more tiresome rather than less.

    The UK cover by the way reflects a recent trend in UK publishing to rebrand books as what is seen by those publishers as female friendly. Apparently it does have a real impact on sales, though some have questioned whether the particular female readers being targetted are being misread as to the actual nature of the book they’re buying. Typically, they imply romance or light humour or are very pastel-y (which is a style traditionally used for light romantic comedic fiction in the UK). It’s not a trend I like, but if it gets a book more readers I’m probably wrong in that.

    If you check old Douglas Kennedy covers against his current ones, you’ll see exactly what I mean about the rebranding. More oddly, the same seems to be happening to Alan Furst which seems to me seriously misleading.


  12. Max Cairnduff Says:

    That should have referred to the targetted female readers being misled, not misread.


  13. Isabel Says:

    Barry is my friend! (I asked him a couple of questions when he was a speaker at the Tenneesee Williams Festival in the early part of this century.)

    But, I do find he is hit or miss. Hated Sacred Hunger. Couldn’t even finish The Hide. Loved Losing Nelson, Stone Virgin, Morality Play, After Hannibal.

    He did say that he sounds like Sean Connery, because they were both raised in the same part of the world, but that he doesn’t have Sean’s wealth. He writes about places AFTER he leaves the place.

    He is a very nice author and enjoys talking to people.


  14. Colette Jones Says:

    I’m about a third of the way through Land of Marvels and have broken my usual rule to see what you have to say about it. I usually will not look at reviews until I have finished a book. The exceptions are for those books I don’t like very much “so far”.

    I am finding it tedious and boring – too much explanation. I don’t know much at all about this part of the world and the history of it. The book is not helping me to want to know.

    I enjoy the interaction between characters though, so I’m skimming through the explanations and paying attention to the interaction. I would like to finish it, as it will need to be considered by the Booker judges.


  15. Max Cairnduff Says:

    But if you skim through the explanations and only read the character bits, are you really reading the novel?

    That’s not a criticism by the way, rather it suggests to me that the novel as written has deep flaws in terms of infodumping (normally more a problem for sf novels, but historical can suffer from it too) but that otherwise there is something great which hasn’t quite made it out.

    Perhaps it needed a bit more ruthless editing, perhaps the infodumps required to tell the story were simply too great for the story to bear, whatever the answer it does seem the balance isn’t quite right.


  16. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Sorry I made you break your rule Colette, but I do hope visiting this review was worthwhile.

    I had exactly the same problem with the book — the history kept getting in the way of the characters, or, alternately, the characters kept getting in the way of the history. I couldn’t help but wonder what the author was trying to achieve. And having introduced the review by saying Unsworth was a hit-and-miss author for me, I will say that his novels that I like best are the ones where he explores characters and uses history as a setting rather than his main theme. I did finish the book — I did think the history part overtook the characters.

    All of which makes Max’s comment quite relevant, at least for this reader. I think Unsworth set up a frameowork “simply too great for the story to bear” — which is as concise a description as I can imagine for my reaction to this book.


  17. Colette Jones Says:

    Max, you are right, skimming is not really reading. I rarely do it, and I obviously will not be hoping this book makes the Booker list. However, when you say “otherwise there is something great which hasn’t quite made it out” is quite a good way of putting it.

    Kevin, I only read the reviews of books I’ve read or books I’m in the middle of and not sure whether to proceed. I appreciate your review because it confirms what I thought of the book but I will continue to skim through.


  18. Max Cairnduff Says:


    I’ve skimmed, mostly if I’m considering abandoning a work and am considering giving it one last chance. Usually if I’m at that point, skimming doesn’t retrieve it.

    Some books I find myself tempted to skip ahead because they’re plot driven and the plot is gripping. That’s a good temptation. Sometimes I’m tempted to skip ahead to see if it gets interesting later, that’s not so good.

    Anyway, I’m glad Kevin took this one as I’m a sucker for this sort of topic in a novel and would definitely have picked this up. I still may, I may enjoy it more after all, but it’s a long way down my pile now and I’ll likely try another Unsworth first.

    Reviews that introduce me to a new writer, such as Richard Yates who I’m currently enjoying hugely, those I appreciate. But reviews that put me off a book, given my groaning shelves those are worth their virtual weight in gold.


  19. Colette Jones Says:

    Well, I “finished” it. I stopped skimming and started skipping until I got to the last 20 pages or so, which I actually read. Not my cup of tea, this book.


  20. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Well done Colette,

    There is a certain satisfaction to finishing something. I blogged recently on my part read pile, two of which I don’t know if I’ll bother returning to, but I probably shall because I do feel some satisfaction to finishing a book even if I didn’t much enjoy it.

    That said, time spent finishing a book one doesn’t enjoy is time that could have been spent starting a new book one does enjoy, so I may be simply being pointlessly stoic. Not sure.

    Anyway, well done. Sorry it didn’t improve for you.


  21. KevinfromCanada Says:

    It wasn’t my cup of tea either — a book with promise (as Max has noted) from the description, but never realized. I do think Anne Michael’s The Winter Vault (out in March but I got to read a proof copy) takes some similar themes and does them better. Her language was a bit of a problem for me on the first go through, but memory is making the book better and I’ll give it a reread in a few weeks.

    I can’t skim and wish I could. I also complete almost every book I start, even though I know some are not good books and I share the observation that while doing it I know I am missing out on something that I would both enjoy more and get more from. My biggest problem with those kind of books is that I go into “avoidance” mode — because I know I won’t enjoy the reading, I find other distractions and end up not reading at all. Which of course doubles the effect of wasting valuable potential reading time.


  22. Alyce Says:

    I am in the same situation as Colette was. I got about a third of the way through the book and started skimming. Then I went hunting for reviews online and found yours. Even though I’ve only read the first third of the book I completely agree with your review. I just can’t see expending the energy to finish this book.


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