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Sebastian Smee

Conflicts of interest?

Land of Marvels, by Barry Unsworth<br /> <br type="_moz" />

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Land of Marvels

Barry Unsworth

Hutchinson, pp. 287, £

Land of Marvels, by Barry Unsworth

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 Meso- potamian 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 near-identical 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. Unsworth’s characters are kind enough to spell out the project’s financial and geopolitical implications, but for Somerville the railway presents a more immediate problem: unless something is done to slow it down or redirect it, the tracks will soon cut straight through his dig.

While the dig still looks so unpromising, part of him feels almost relieved to have his ambitions foiled by circumstances beyond his control. But when he starts turning up evidence that points to a momentous discovery — one that will necessitate a rewriting of the Assyrian empire’s dramatic last days, bringing him fame and fortune in the process — he naturally tries to disrupt the railway’s progress.

The cast around Somerville includes an empty-headed, exhorting wife, a ruthless businessman, a couple of spies and oil experts, and Jehar, a local adviser who is trying to win a beautiful Circassian girl called Ninanna from her father. By telling her fantastic stories, Jehar has already won the girl’s heart; he just needs 100 gold coins to pay off her father. And so he hatches a plan that neatly dovetails with Somerville’s own increasingly desperate state of mind.

It’s all terrifically racy in theory — and who knows, perhaps it might work as a film? — but Unsworth fails to make us believe. His prose is elegant and sure, as ever, but his characters are puppets and they are made to do so much explaining — archaeological, financial, geopolitical — that the exercise quickly becomes wearisome.

Unsworth has worked hard to match his plot to his larger themes — the power of storytelling (ironic, really), the effects of obsession and human avidity — but, unlike Jehar, he has forgotten the novelist’s chief responsibility, which is to seduce.