I have just finished a terrific novel: Land of Marvels by Barry Unsworth

August 2, 2009 at 7:39 pm (Book review, books, Historical fiction)

marvels Mesopotamia, 1914. John Somerville is a British archaeologist excavating at a site called Tell Erdek. His assistant is Palmer, who at the tender age of twenty-seven is already an expert on Assyrian and Sumerian inscriptions. Also making up the party is Patricia, a graduate student.  They all anticipate a momentous find at this site.

Somerville’s wife Edith is also present but spends most of her time back at the expedition house,  seeing to the comfort of her husband and the others. She seems the very emblem of a traditional wife – but appearances are deceiving. Circumstances change, and people change along with them.  Their values, even their natures, alter. In some cases, they end by becoming more like their true selves.

Other individuals cycle through the expedition house. The ethic of the time and place requires that they be offered hospitality, whatever the purpose of their journey may be. Sometimes that purpose is just what it seems, as is the case with the Johanssons, a Swedish couple traveling on behalf of The Society for Biblical Research. I like the way Unsworth describes the husband:

“Johansson had a slow and weighty manner and a heavy, crumpled-looking face, rather appealing, with some fugitive likeness to a teddy bear in it, one that had been knocked about a bit but not in any spirit of malice.

Other visitors have more sinister reasons for turning up at the dig. These individuals attempt to conceal their true agendas beneath a convivial veneer, succeeding only partially in this effort.

Then there is Jehar, a young man in Somerville’s employ. Jehar serves as an interpreter and also as a valuable source of information concerning developments in the immediate environs. Unbeknown to Somerville and his group, Jehar has an agenda of his own: he cherishes an obsessive ardor for a beautiful young woman from a nearby village. He woos her with stories:

“He described the town to Ninanna, the green islet in the midst of the stream, the permanent bridge that went from one bank to the other, the six white minarets that rose above the roofs of the houses, the great mass of gardens and palm groves and cultivated fields that extended along the river for many miles to the east. Memory and invention combined with love to make him eloquent.

Jehar is describing a kind of paradise, which he hopes that he and Ninanna will one day inhabit together. But his tales are by no means solely concerned with idyllic episodes. One of them, about a powerful desire that proves both insatiable and unquenchable, is told so vividly and ends so horrifically that I could not stop thinking about it for days afterward.

Land of Marvels is rich in details about the geopolitics of the region and its ancient and mysterious past, and also about the processes of archaeological and geological exploration. I was trying to think of other novelists who likewise make confident assumptions about readers’ intelligence. Two names came to mind: Ian McEwan and Anita Brookner.

The characters in this novel are not all likable, but they are all in varying degree interesting. Gradually tension builds among them. Everyone knows part of what is going on; no one knows the whole story. As I read on, I became increasingly convinced that some cataclysm awaited these people. But what ? and when? As I approached the final phase of the narrative, the tension became so great that I could only read a few pages at a time. I felt as though I were literally gasping  for air! Among its other virtues, Land of Marvels served as a reminder to me that “suspense” is not a genre but a quality that inheres in any skillfully crafted narrative. In addition to his command of a beautifully precise prose style, Barry Unsworth is a master of the storytelling art.


In addition to Land of Marvels, I  recommend this novel of medieval England: moralityplay.

Barry Unsworth

Barry Unsworth


  1. Pauline Cohen said,


    I have read some of Barry Unsworth’s work–including Morality Play and find that he writes about an amazingly broad range of topics. He is Australian, I believe, like another very interesting and talented writer who also writes on an extremely diverse choice of topics–Peter Carey. There is another Australian writer who comes to mind, but I can’t recall his name who is also in this category. He wrote Shindler’s LIst and many other fine books. Shame on me for not remembering his name!

    Under your category of writers who don’t condescend to their readers’ intelligence I would add A.S. Byatt. That made me think of her sister, Margaret Drabble, (what a household that must have been!) and I wondered whether Ms. Drabble could be included. I’m not sure. I’ll think about it some more.


    • Roberta Rood said,


      Thanks for your (as always) thoughtful comment. I have yet to read anything by Peter Carey (so many books, etc.). As for Drabble and Byatt, both are terrific writers, though their fiction doesn’t always appeal to me. I really love Byatt’s collection LITTLE BLACK BOOK OF STORIES.

      Didn’t I recently read that Drabble has “retired” from writing?

      Barry Unsworth was born in the North of England, has traveled widely in Europe and the Middle East, and now lives in Italy (lucky, lucky man!). Here’s a link to his entry in Contemporary authors of the UK:


      And BTW – the author whose name you couldn’t recollect is Thomas Keneally.

  2. Pauline Cohen said,

    I don’t know why I was under the impression that Barry Unsworth was Australian! There goes my theory (albeit half-baked) about the ascendancy of Australian writers. Of course I recalled Keneally’s name as I was trying to get to sleep last night.

    Also, I didn’t know that Drabble wasn’t writing any longer. If that’s so, I’m sorry to hear it.

    As for Peter Carey, everything he writes is amazingly creative and each novel is so different from his other books. Some of his work is quite complex and plays on the uneasy balance between fantasy and reality. If I were to recommend a relatively easy entry into his world, I would start with his faux-biography of Ned Kelly. It’s called something like The True History of Ned Kelly (??). Obviously my memory isn’t what it was!

    Thanks for your response to my comment.


  3. Best books of 2009: my own favorites « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin It’s Beginning To Hurt by James Lasdun Land of Marvels by Barry Unsworth The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters The Birthday Present by Barbara Vine The […]

  4. Kay W said,

    It’s February, and I finally got around to reading this. What a great book! Having read Mary Doria Russell’s Dreamers of the Day a few months ago, I am wondering if this is a new trend: contemporary novelists looking back in an imaginative way at the machinations of the colonial powers (and the US) before WWI that sowed the seeds of perpetual strife in the Middle East. This is a wonderful but very sad, thought provoking book.

  5. Books to talk about – a personal view « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] Land of Marvels – Barry Unsworth The Shooting Party – Isabel Colegate The Fall of Troy and The Lambs of London – Peter Ackroyd Arthur & George – Julian Barnes Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel An Imperfect Lens – Anne Roiphe The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate – Jacqueline Kelly (YA) […]

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