Living in the past

<strong>Land of Marvels</strong>

<em>Barry Unsworth</em>

Hutchinson, 304pp, £18.99

Barry Unsworth's last two novels, The Songs of the Kings and The Ruby in her Navel, were set in ancient Greece and medieval Sicily respectively, so, by setting Land of Marvels, his 16th book, in Mesopotamia under the Ottoman empire in 1914, he has returned to comparatively modern times. His main character, John Somerville, is a British archaeologist working on a self-financed dig excavating a mound in what is now western Iraq. After three years of insignificant finds, he is running out of money and time: the German- financed Baghdad Railway that will link Constantinople to the Persian Gulf is heading for his site and may reach him in weeks. (In the real world, the outbreak of the First World War put a stop to the railway's construction, and when the first train travelled along the completed line in 1940, Constantinople was called Istanbul and Baghdad was the capital of the newish state of Iraq.)

Somerville, more interested in ancient civilisation than in modern politics, dreams of making a discovery to rival the identification of the Assyrian capital Nineveh in the previous century. His indifference to the contemporary blinds him to the significance of events around him; it also isolates him from the other characters and from his wife, Edith, in particular. Edith longs to be the "support and companion of a man of purpose", and thought Somerville fitted this description when she married him. As Somerville digs and Edith consoles herself by reading Walter Scott novels, a British major compiles survey maps of the region and they are joined by Alex Elliott, an American geologist posing as an archaeologist, who is looking for signs of oil in the desert.

Other characters include a Bedouin tribesman whom Somerville bribes for news of the railway, a female history graduate who annoys Edith with her talk of votes for women, a pair of Swedish missionaries looking for the site of the Garden of Eden, and Lord Rampling, an ungentlemanly Englishman (touches of the finan­cier Calouste Gulbenkian?) with a stake in the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (BP's forerunner), who dresses in splendid-sounding outfits of pale green linen with lavender silk shirts and carries a silver-tipped cane.

Too many of the novel's cast are monomaniacs in the grip of their individual obsessions, and Unsworth divides the book so evenly between the characters that there are too many monomanias to follow and not enough time for any of them to seem engaging. In addition to this mob of characters, almost every scene in Land of Marvels is loaded with past and present significance. It's almost too much for 300 well-spaced pages to bear. Somerville's reflections on the rise and fall of the Assyrian kings are perhaps the most interesting part of the book in terms of information (though later history is made up for plot purposes), but are also the most static; a trip to the British Museum, which houses most of A H Layard's Assyrian finds, would tell you just as much.

The novel has two epigraphs: part of Kipling's "Recessional" ("Lo, all our pomp of yesterday/ Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!") and a 1923 American newspaper article about the benefits of Middle Eastern oil. Unsworth seems similarly divided as his subject wavers between the arrogance of self-proclaimed civilisations and the consequences of a particular moment in 20th-century history. Eventually he opts for the latter story and an action-packed finale, which is disconcerting after the ponderousness that has preceded it. The literally explosive ending is then followed by a postscript that you could easily imagine, in shortened form, descending on a screen just before the credits of the film adaptation roll. We learn what happens to all the characters, but the parallels Unsworth draws between then and now, and then and even longer ago, are too vague and too many to be very satisfying as either fiction or a history lesson.

This article first appeared in the 26 January 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Nixon went to China... Will Obama go to Iran?