Sunday, October 24, 2010

Land of Marvels, by Barry Unsworth

This is for Historical Tapestry's blog challenge - U is for Unsworth.

By the early twentieth century the world had already been referring to the Ottoman Empire as the "sick man of Europe" for over fifty years. So as the widely-anticipated Great War loomed on the horizon, competing nations jostled to position themselves to seize the bounty expected when the Ottomans finally fell. Barry Unsworth sets his novel at the fringes of Mesopotamia, a seemingly desolate corner of this fragile Empire, but one that holds hidden wealth for those who are poised to take it.

English archaeologist John Sommerville has staked his fortune on this bit of desert for a more romantic reason than wealth or strategic advantage. He has bet his fortune on a few hills and hopes that excavating them and finding signs of lost empires will finally make a name for him as a professional archaeologist. But the money is running out and discoveries are scarce, prompting a desperation that his wife of only a few years senses, and disdains. When plans for a German railroad progress, Sommerville fears the line will cut through his camp and end any chances at success. In a desperate gambit to slow the railroad's construction, Sommerville sets in motion a chain of events that will affect not only the lives of those at his camp, but the ambitions of nations watching the weakening Ottoman lands.

I found the beginning of Land of Marvels less than engaging. The stakes were difficult to grasp at first and Sommerville is initially unsympathetic in his paranoia and waffling ambition. But the plot gathers speed, just like the steam engine Sommerville imagines hurtling past his camp, and the book becomes far more enjoyable. The book is at its best when drawing delicate comparisons between empires, different ages, and man's ambitions. I used the gendered word there advisedly - I found Unsworth's renderings of his three female characters to be the weakest parts of the book. But overall, this is an enjoyable read, and certainly thought-provoking.

It pairs well with another book I'm reading - The Idea of Decline in Western History. Unsworth's novel reminds us that all empires eventually fall, while the other book, a sort of history of political theory from the past 200 years, points out that the pessimism and predictions of the "end" have always existed. I suppose that each human enterprises will eventually change beyond recognition or end, but our ability to foresee that end is extremely limited.

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