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Land of Marvels by Barry Unsworth. Unsworth is probably my favourite historical novelist (I’ve been following his work attentively since I discovered The Stone Virgin) but I’ve never really thought of him as an historical novelist. I realised in reading this superb book that although his attention to historical detail is scrupulous, his main interest is in the contemporary resonance. What comes to the fore in his books is some aspect of process, something in the continuing nature of human endeavour, that is the same then as now. In this instance he writes about Mesopotamia in the months before the First World War. A British archaeological dig is just beginning to make finds that may point to new knowledge about the end of the Assyrian Empire, but the archaeologist is running out of money and at the same time obsessed with the threat of a German railway line that is being built on a line that will take it directly through his site. He appeals to the British authorities in Constantinople, who seem to offer help although their real interest is in the great game being played out over the not-quite-dead corpse of the Turkish Empire and which is part of the build-up to war. An American geologist is despatched to the site in the guise of an archaeologist, but his real mission is to explore for oil on behalf of the British; unfortunately he is playing a triple game working for the Germans and also for the Americans, which in turn brings British and German spies to the site. With personal betrayals counterpointing the political duplicity, with the uncovering of Assyrian mysteries going side by side with the revelations of contemporary secrets, the plot is complex and compelling. But what you really take away from the novel is the way that geopolitical and financial interests interact (as an aside, for instance, we learn that French silk workers from Lille were anxious to preserve their silk supplies from Syria, which is why, in the carve-up of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War, Syria became a French mandate).

First published at LiveJournal, 1 April 2009.

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