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Monday, July 26, 2010

Land of Marvels: A Novel by Barry Unsworth

Slow start, rushed ending.

Land of Marvels: A Novel is set in the pre-World War I Ottoman Empire, it what will eventually become Iraq. The main characters are Somerville, a British archaeologist in the midst of leading an excavation in a Tell (the ruins of a built up area that was once a city - usually a hump in the landscape), his wife, his two suboordinate archaeologists and Jehar, an Arab "fix-it" man (he does not fix machines, he fixes situations - he smoothes out situations with the local labor, finds out information that Somerville may need and so on).

As the title for this review noted, the book very slow at the beginning. One would think it would be very interesting with the spectre of international intrigue, the challenge of the excavation, the cultural chasm between British gentry and their Arab laborers. Nope, it just moved slowly along - the only interesting character, for me, was Jehar and his infatuation with a 15 year old girl. His efforts to raise the cash to meet her uncle's demand for a bride price was the only thing that kept me involved. There are other themes as well, including disenchantment with one's spouse and "progress" vs. history.

Barry Unsworth
Finally, with the arrival of Elliott, an American geologist sent in posing as an archaeologist, the book starts to move. The ending is so quick, with such a forced feel that it felt severely rushed when compared to the begining of the book.

The book is not without value, it does paint a rather vivid picture of the time and place its trying to portray (a pre-World War I dig site) but I'm not sure if it is worth the effort.

I rate this book 2 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on June 3, 2010.

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