Land of Marvels by Barry Unsworth

It is always fascinating when two authors, working separately, produce strikingly similar novels. Consider, for example, the way Barry Unsworth’s latest historical fiction, Land of Marvels, and Peter Ackroyd’s The Fall of Troy (2007) use nearly identical material to differing ends.

Both novels feature an eccentric European archaeologist pioneering an important Middle Eastern dig. Each man has a strong-minded wife who betrays him and a bright younger British scholar as his assistant.

The synchronicities do not stop with the books. Unsworth and Ackroyd alike are celebrated British writers. Both have been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, with Unsworth winning in 1992 for Sacred Hunger.

Ackroyd’s is the slimmer of the two novels, both in ambition and actual length. The Fall of Troy is a farce of scientific egomania. Its presiding spirit might be Evelyn Waugh, that supreme parodist of colonial hubris.

Working with broader scope, Unsworth seems governed by the somber spirit of Joseph Conrad, informed by a deep notion of the way business, politics and science serve imperialism, to the sorrow of future generations. Unsworth’s principal character, John Somerville, squanders his small fortune excavating a desert mound in Ottoman territory outside Baghdad, just before World War I. Inspired by the success of Austen Henry Layard, who excavated Nineveh and discovered the library of Ashurpanipal, Somerville is certain the site contains an Assyrian palace.

Just as Somerville uncovers tantalizing artifacts, a German-built railroad project threatens to pass through his dig. Seeking the protection of British power, he becomes the dupe of Lord Rampling, a ruthless businessman and politician, who forces Somerville to accept the presence of an American geologist posing as an archaeologist.

Elliott arrives to covertly survey the area’s untapped oil reserves. Brash and manly, he makes a decided impression on Somerville’s wife, Edith. Other key figures in Unsworth’s large cast of characters include the assistant, Palmer; a British major and an Austrian journalist, both mercenaries sent to keep an eye on Elliott; and Jehar, a street-and-desert-smart Arab determined to earn £100 to buy the girl he’s fallen in love with.

Unsworth aims to show how the quagmire of war and factional strife in Iraq today came into being nearly a century ago. His prodigious knowledge of subjects such as history, archaeology, petroleum geology, European politics, Arab tribalism and human psychology serves him well.

And yet, Unsworth both under- and overreaches. He writes with an old-fashioned limited-omniscience narration that switches from one character’s point of view to another in the middle of a scene. The resulting density makes the reading unnecessarily difficult, which paradoxically lends the narrative an unearned profundity.

On the other hand, after setting in motion a great, clanking narrative machinery, he brings it up short with a spectacular climax more suited to a movie than a serious novel. Land of Marvels, at 287 pages, is simply too short to accommodate its author’s grand design.

In this regard, Ackroyd’s The Fall of Troy, with its narrower focus, is the more completely realized of the two books. Still, Land of Marvels, with its insight into its time and region, its satisfying use of character and setting, remains a powerful literary historical novel, of a kind not often assayed anymore.

RATING 7 / 10