Publisher: Hutchinson (1 Jan 2009)
It’s no secret that Sacred Hunger is my Booker of Bookers. Its depiction of the hunger for power and money set in the time of the African slave trade was an unforgettable reading experience and one which ensured that a new Unsworth jumps to the top of the TBR as soon as the ink dries on the printed page.
Land of Marvels, his 16th novel, published today (what a great start to 2009) sees Unsworth return to the same hungers in a setting foreshadowing the dominating agenda of our time. Power, war, Iraq, oil.
It’s June 1914 and Mesopotamia, the land destined to become Iraq, is beset with foreign powers jockeying for prime position following the forthcoming inevitable fall of the Ottoman Empire. The British are buying the affiliation of tribal chiefs, the Germans are busy building a railway to Baghdad – ostensibly to help the Ottomans, in reality to protect their supply lines. In the middle John Sommerville, a British archeologist, is about to make an amazing discovery at his self-financed dig – only the German railway is threatening to run through the middle of his site. And the British and Americans aren’t that interested in another Assyrian royal palace. This ground holds black gold and Sommerville is coerced into providing cover for a American geologist scouting for this particular treasure, which
“… will flow like the milk and honey we are told of in the Good Book, a blessing to the children of the earth.”
Double (maybe triple) standards abound. The disputes, intrigues and lies of 1914 eerily reminiscent of those of 2003. While Unsworth offers no overt criticism, much can be read into his choice of symbols and their associations. The notorious cruelty of the Assyrian empire is reflected in an artifact unearthed at Somerville’s dig:
slightly more than half of a circular ivory plaque, broken across diagonally, showing the head and right foreleg of a lion, ….. the head lowered in a fashion almost dainty, fastidious, the teeth gripping into the throat of a man not supine but resting back on his arms, straddled by the beast, head raised, near death ….
During the summer of 1914, the image of the wild beast is transferred to the British spymaster, Rampling.
Light flickered over the man slumbering in the deep chair, falling over his chest and legs, making him seem, for these few moments, with his face in shadow and the human likeness obscured, like some beast of the jungle, barred and striped, at rest in its lair.
The novel depicts the events that follow the awakening of this somnolent beast – symbolic of the British Empire. Yet it is the utterly amoral American geologist, who holds the aces.
The echoes of present to past operate on another level also. Sommerville has much in common with the Assyrian king he unearths. In the end political shenanigans and romantic betrayals aren’t what spell doom for the poor man. He’s played for a fool by a local, who is simply trying to save the bride price for the woman he loves. The conflagration that ensues as sudden and as violent as the eventual outbreak of World War I.
I’m ever so slightly evangelical about Unsworth – I voted for him in the recent greatest living British author poll – so let’s start 2009 with a giveaway. If you’d like a chance at my review copy, please leave a comment naming your favourite historical fiction read. All countries eligible. Giveaway closes on 8.01.09.