Land of Marvels

Written by Barry Unsworth
Review by Trudi E. Jacobson

Somerville, a British archaeologist, is spending his third season working on Tell Erdek in Mesopotamia just months before the start of the Great War. His funds are running out, and he is terribly afraid that the railroad the Germans are building will destroy his site even if he’s able to continue to pay his workers. In fact, representatives of the three key nations that will be involved in the coming war all play a role: Great Britain, Germany, and the United States. While the land and resources they are concerned with are ruled by Turkey, there seems to be little regard for that country’s role or rights. While the central focus is on the situation at Tell Erdek, where the wider political situation is seen in microcosm, there is an engaging side story involving Jehar, whom Somerville is paying for information about the encroaching railroad line, and the young woman whom Jehar woos through increasingly fantasized tales of an idyllic locale they can repair to together.

Long, long ago, the area encompassed by this novel was Assyrian. Unsworth describes that empire: “A lust for power had inspired them from the first, an energy of conquest that had taken them… to domination of practically all the world they knew and to the development of a ruthless militarism that made their army the most feared and efficient fighting machine that the world had so far seen.” The land is also a portion of a large territory that became Iraq following the war, leading to possible comparisons between Assyria and a modern power. This engaging novel can be read on several levels. Some will find the archaeological details and the history of the Assyrians to be extremely interesting. Readers who are intrigued by the political machinations of the period will also find much to savor. With all its facets taken together, it is a ripping good story.