'Land of Marvels' by Barry Unsworth

Mideast tale mixes oil, archaeology and spying as World War I looms

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Meeting Barry Unsworth last year at a University of Pittsburgh symposium on the slave trade confirmed the impression of him I gained from his fine novels -- a serious-minded, careful researcher with a powerful empathy for people.

"A Sacred Hunger," his 1992 prize-winning novel about the English slave business, revealed those qualities to their best advantage.

While his latest lacks the conviction and sweep of that novel, its message puts the current United States predicament in Iraq right in our laps.

   
"LAND OF MARVELS"

By Barry Unsworth
Nan Talese/Doubleday ($26)

   

The time is 1914 Mesopotamia, the one-time Babylon, ruled then by the Ottoman Empire. It was reimagined by the British as an artificial nation called Iraq after World War I.

Unsworth has crafted a complex world filled with characters:

Somerville, an English archaeologist on the brink of a major discovery; a German railroad company building a train link between Berlin and Baghdad that threatens his dig; British and American interests prospecting for oil in the desert; and the suspicious Turks wary of everyone.

Hanging over the oppressive heat is the threat of war on the horizon. It's not a surprise that petroleum rather than ancient ruins takes precedence in this year on the brink.

The major powers have switched their battleships' boilers to oil and the automobile business is growing like a weed.

There's lots of money to be made. With the help of His Majesty's government, a canny businessman named Rampling decides that one way to disguise his firm's snooping in the desert for oil formations is to "embed" a geologist with Somerville's dig.

The desperate archaeologist is persuaded to accept this arrangement in hopes the British government can keep the German rail project at bay until he can make a name for himself with this discovery. It's a lie.

The spy is an American named Elliott, unpretentious and direct the way Yanks were, attractive to Somerville's lovely, but neglected wife and full of enthusiasm about hunting for oil. He amuses the Somerville household with the story of Edwin Drake and his famous well at Titusville, Pa.

Lurking in the shadows is Jehar, a native man working on Somerville's site who hopes to make enough cash to get married and is willing to try dangerous things to get it.

Of more interest is Unsworth's story of ancient civilizations warring in the Euphrates River valley, their rise and fall and the course of history in this fabled part of the world.

"Land of Marvels," rather than a cautionary tale of the lure of oil, becomes an action thriller with predictable plot lines. With a little tweaking and "Indiana Jones" features, it holds possibilities for a Hollywood film of intrigue and mystery.

"LAND OF MARVELS"

By Barry Unsworth

Nan Talese/Doubleday ($26)


Post-Gazette book editor Bob Hoover can be reached at 412-263-1634 or bhoover@post-gazette.com.


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