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Land of Marvels: A Novel Hardcover – Deckle Edge, January 6, 2009

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Booker Prize-winning Unsworth (The Ruby in Her Navel) sets his intelligent and timely new book in Mesopotamia during the spring of 1914, just before the chaos of WWI. John Somerville, a British archeologist desperate for fame, worries that his new discovery, an ancient tomb, will be compromised by the construction--funded by Germany--of a new railway line. At the excavation site, Somerville's wife, Edith, wonders if her marriage has fizzled, especially after the arrival of Alex Elliott, a handsome American posing as a geologist but secretly searching for new sources of oil. Meanwhile, Jehar, an Arab confidence man, brings often fabricated messages to Somerville, warning him that the Germans are quickly approaching. The tension between the players--all eager to claim rights to what the land provides--builds toward a violent, unexpected finale. In elegantly modulated prose, Unsworth creates a tapestry of ambition and greed while, at the same time, foreshadowing the current conflict in the region. (Jan.)
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From The New Yorker

It is 1914, and, after three years in the deserts of Mesopotamia, the British archeologist John Somerville believes he is on the brink of a great discovery. Before he can uncover what he thinks was the residence of the last Assyrian king, Somerville must fight off plans for a railway that will encroach on his dig site, and thwart the efforts of Elliot, a charismatic, straight-talking American (in British historical novels there is rarely any other kind) who is bent on finding oil and on destroying what remains of Somerville�s marriage. There is something of E. M. Forster in Unsworth�s knowing depiction of a decaying empire run by upper-class incompetents, and in his generous and sympathetic portrayal of women caught between cultures, but he falters in the execution: the plot is that of a thriller, yet the story unfolds at the leisurely pace of a somewhat distracted teatime conversation.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Nan A. Talese; 1st edition (January 6, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385520077
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385520072
  • Product Dimensions: 5.9 x 1.1 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (86 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,849,732 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

41 of 43 people found the following review helpful By David Schweizer VINE VOICE on December 26, 2008
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
This is very fine historical fiction. It is very timely. Although set in the recent past, at the time of World War I in Europe, the author places readers at the heart of the Middle East, which for many is still known as the fertile crescent or the center of civilization. He expounds knowledgeably on such geographic areas as the Mesopotamian civilization (now Iraq), with extensive discussions on the origins and development of Sumerian cultures, the Hittites, the Semites, the Akkadians and the Babylonians. Between Baghdad and Constantinople, the author "travels" between what, due to current events, have become familiar places. His prose style is clear and precise; it lacks that obscurity that has become part of modern fiction,, especially in those works which employ magical realism and rich, if not fascinating, cultural references that can make reading an arduous undertaking. In contrast, Unsworth writes in prose more familiar to reading of nonfiction or of contemporary mysteries; that is, he is accessible and pleasurable easy to read. The story revolves around a British archaeologist who is working on an excavation of a long-buried Assyrian palace. The search for historical objects clashes with the rich for oil, with a geologist in conflict with the scholar. High and low ambitions do battle in the sands of time. This is a thriller that is worth reading, as fiction just for fun, or as fascinating background to our current political conflicts in that part of the world.
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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Best Of All on December 20, 2008
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
King oil, Iraq and the chess game of imperialistic "diplomacy."

The elements may sound familiar, but author Barry Unsworth travels back to 1914 when the Ottoman Empire was in the closing act on the world stage and would soon be carved up like a Thanksgiving turkey in the aftermath of World War One (Iraq was created in 1920 by a League of Nations mandate and under the protection of the United Kingdom). The historical novel focuses on the already strong push by the Western super powers to gain a strong and lasting presence in the region as the empire was teetering on the brink of irrelevancy.

In the eye of the storm is archeologist John Somerville, who is looking to catch lightning in a jar with the excavation of site that is - unfortunately for him - directly in the path of a railway to Baghdad that is being financed by German interests. The dig yields an ancient palace/tomb, but Somerville is looking at time quickly ticking away and his dream of worldwide fame being buried forever. Swirling around Somerville's crew are a number of people who have ulterior motives; his wife has strong feelings that the marriage is over, with her knight being the American "archeologist" and Jehar, a swindler with a smile, who delivers a number of bogus messages concerning the railway construction as he hopes to create an unbeatable gambit for the most powerful players.

The American "archeologist" is actually an oil company geologist who befriends Somerville, but is in a race to find liquid gold in the ground. And with others not so covert prepared to converge on the land, Somerville may become a pawn in a contest where his life is a worthless commodity.
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful By L. Young VINE VOICE on March 6, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Iraq 1914, an archaeology site. Here gather a multinational cast of characters each with a competing interest in the land. John Sommerville, a young English archaeologist, believes he has found the site of an ancient Assyrian palace and tomb. Alexander Elliott is an American petroleum geologist masquerading as an archaeologist, who believes he has found a huge oil field at the same site. A Swedish couple, the Johannssons are missionaries who believe this is the site of the original Garden of Eden and have been given a 99 year lease by the Ottomans to build a luxury hotel here to lure spiritual tourists.

Added to the mix is Jehar an wily Arab hired by Sommerville to give him information on the German railroad under construction which is moving inexorably closer and closer to the archaeology site; Edith the beautiful but emotionally distant wife of Sommerville, Sommerville's assistant Palmer and the Patricia the daughter of a friend of the Sommervilles who is staying with them. In additional we get a duplicitous British miliary man and sinister English businessman.

In this novel of double dealing and intrigue no one is quite who they say they are. All of this seems quite promising in a novel. Unfortunately the promise is never realized until the last 80 pages of the novel. With its slow moving action and lapses into pages on Assryian archaeology and petroleum geology, interest in the story wanes quickly. Finally in the last pages the story picks up steam ending in a shattering act of violence, but it is too little to late for this reader.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By David W. Straight on December 25, 2008
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
There's a fine recent nonfiction work "Setting the Desert on Fire: T.E. Lawrence and Britain's Secret War in Arabia, 1916=1918" which provides a fascinating look at politics and duplicity in the Middle East by Britain and other world powers. Britain (and other countries) readily made promises that they never had any intention of honoring. Much of this is reflected in Unsworth's Land of Marvels. Somerville is a British archaeologist working at a dig in Iraq in the spring of 1914. He lives for his work and hopes for recognition and financing. The dig lies in the path of the German-financed railroad to Baghdad and Basra, and the Turks have given the Germans mineral rights for 20 kilometers on each side of the railroad. The Germans plan the route to exploit mineral resources, the Turks look forward to being able to move troops in wartime.

Somerville's life is complicated by the oncoming railroad, and it gets further complicated by British interests who couldn't care less about Somerville's work. There's the British Major Manning, who is surveying and is basically an intelligence agent. There's the British ambassador to Turkey, and the shadowy Rampling representing business interests, and Rampling and the ambassador place an American petroleum geologist with Somerville, ostensibly as an archaeologist, but actually to spy out petroleum potential along the railroad route. The American also represents US oil companies. So there's a very complex plethora of agendas here, all working at cross-purposes. Somerville is small-time, sacrificial and expendable for the larger interests involved.

Unsworth gives an excellent portrayal of an archaeologist at his dig, and he also does a fine job with the other characters--this is a rich, complex, and satisfying novel.
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