Author: Barry Unsworth

Nan A. Talese, 2009

Best ebook deal: Public library

When I first read the summary that claimed that  Land of Marvels was “Historical fiction at its finest,” I was hoping for another story like Ron Rash’s Serena—which I really liked—that is to say, another vicious depiction of violent hardscrabble survival in an age whose relative recency (within the century) cannot mask its brutal primitivity.

I was disappointed. Land of Marvels is instead a tale more of premise than plot, frequently described in abstractions (it’s about “power” and “ambition”) because nothing much specific ever quite happens.

Land of Marvels is the story of a tract of land in Mesopotamia in 1914, and the various people interested in that land and what’s underneath it. There are archaeologists there to dig up the potsherds of ancient empires; there are geologists there looking for the oil needed to fuel the ships of the British navy; there are locals who make pittances by digging up friezes or lying to the Englishmen; and there are the bosses, partners, wives, and love interests of all these people.

The characters themselves are passable, if somewhat bland (as is Unsworth’s prose), but they simply don’t do anything of much interest. When a millionaire power broker tells an ambassador to betray his old school chum for the good of England’s oil, the millionaire does so in the form of an excruciating 18-page near-monologue about England and commodities and morality, instead of simply telling the man, “I own you, do this.” (To make matters worse, the betrayal itself is skipped over entirely.)

This lack of drama bleeds into the structure of the novel as well. Throughout the narrative, Unsworth dips into many characters’ consciousnesses, but these perspective changes never add up to anything much. For example, one character remarks in his thoughts that someone’s clothes betray them as nouveau riche; in the next section that nouveau riche character meditates briefly on how much he likes those clothes. Occasionally someone will contemplate rash or important action, but they almost never go through with it.

I think Unsworth’s problem is his, as The New York Times Book Review called it, “almost magical capacity for literary time travel.” It’s true that Unsworth excels at this aspect of his writing, but he creates such a broad historical foundation to build upon, that he doesn’t have any time left to build anything.

Unsworth mentions tidbits like the British Navy turning from coal to oil, and the women’s suffrage movement in America, but only briefly touches on any one of them. And he floods much of his novel with intricate political nuances that don’t have much effect.

In the third act, Unsworth seems to sense that he doesn’t yet have a plot: he starts throwing in new characters and desperate last-ditch schemes. They all fail to counteract the inertia of the rest of the novel, though, and the story finally ends with a last disappointment.

Essentially this novel reads like a realistic interpretation of Indiana Jones—that is, while movie archaeologists might find themselves on the wrong side of ancient curses or bloodthirsty priests, the ones in Unsworth’s book spend most of their time simply brushing dust off rocks.

Similar books: Serena, by Ron Rash; The Enchantress of Florence, by Salman Rushdie; Gallatin Canyon, by Thomas McGuane