Barry Unsworth

"Land of Marvels"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple JAN 4, 2008)

“Oil is a commodity, right, but it is the future of humanity, it will change the lives of millions. Millions of people, sir. It will change the face of the planet. It will flow like the milk and honey we are told of in the Good Book, a blessing to the children of earth. Now I ask you, what is [an ancient archaeological site] compared to that?”

The land of Mesopotamia, in the Tigris-Euphrates Valley, once boasted the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, among the Seven Wonders of the World. Highly developed ancient civilizations competed for power there four thousand years before Christ, leaving behind sites of immense archaeological importance as they defeated each other and formed new civilizations. In the modern era, Mesopotamia, now known as Iraq, fell under a succession of foreign rulers, and by 1914, when this novel opens, it was ruled from Constantinople by the Ottoman Empire, which was considered “the sick man of Europe” and ripe for overthrow. Iraq, a vast land of immense natural resources, is there for the picking– and it has no government of its own to interfere with potential exploitation by colonial powers.

Virtually every country in Europe is on site, vying for oil, “the genie [that] will be the harbinger of a golden age,” and working to open the country to other business pursuits. The Germans are building a railroad from Basra through Baghdad and on to Constantinople, and they have secured a lease that gives them permission to excavate for twenty kilometers on each side of the track as the railroad goes “coincidentally” through what appear to be vast oil fields. An American from Standard Oil is there, the French are trying to gain a foothold so that the railroad will not take shipping business from them, and the Russians and the Austro-Hungarian Empire may help finance the railroad in exchange for a piece of the action. With World War I about to break out, the need for oil and chrome ore (to make armor-piercing weapons) is pressing, and European countries are looking to Iraq as a source of materiel.

Trying to ignore most of this turmoil is John Somerville, a thirty-five-year-old archaeologist who has been working for three years at Tell Erdek, an ancient site near Baghdad which has so far yielded little in terms of artifacts. A broken piece of ivory (which may be plunder from somewhere else), a flat stone (which may depict the guardian spirit of an Assyrian king), a reconstructed clay tablet in a language spoken by the Assyrians, and the beginning of a wall made of kiln-fired bricks (used only in buildings for royalty) are all that Somerville has to show for his three years of work. Unfortunately, his excavations are in the path of the German-built railroad, and he is running out of money.

As Somerville negotiates the governmental morass in Constantinople, trying to protect his dig, he also deals with deceitful British entrepreneurs and government officials who promise one thing and do another. He is reminded that “The British Empire is the most supreme example the world has ever witnessed of cooperation among nations…[and] Britain’s survival as an imperial power is at stake.” Though no one tells Somerville, the British believe that in case of war, they may well be on the side of the Germans, and that they will be able to use the Baghdad railroad to transport men and materials. They are not going to interfere, even if it means the destruction of unique archaeological artifacts.

As Booker Prize winner Barry Unsworth explores conflicts, deceits, and betrayals on all levels, he creates memorable characters, both on the dig at Tell Erdek and in the wider world. The Turks grant leases willy-nilly, in exchange for fees. The European nations pretend to want one thing when they are actually planning something else entirely. Some highly placed individuals pretend to represent the country when they are actually representing their own business interests, and an American geologist is double-dealing on many levels. Love stories and affairs among those on the archaeological team reveal as much about deceit and betrayal on a small scale as does the behavior of financiers and governments on a grand scale. No one can trust anyone else.

Unsworth creates a vibrant picture of a tumultuous time and place, endowing what might have been an exotic tale of archaeological discovery with a broader thematic scope. The action never flags as the points of view change from Somerville’s excavation, to life at the team’s headquarters, to the courtship of Jehan an informer for Somerville, to government officials and financiers. As artifacts reveal the fate of the ancient “palace” and its inhabitants, Somerville is able to identify the seventh century BC ruler (or his double—another possible deceit). Ultimately, the reader recognizes that the coming world war, its atrocities, and its destruction bear much in common with the vicious warfare of the Assyrian past.

Those who have studied art history, especially the art of the ancient Assyrians, will recognize the names of the kings whom Unsworth mentions—Ashurnasirpal, Sennacherib, Essarhaddon, and Ashurbanipal. Art history texts usually feature art work connected to these leaders—guardian monsters, statuary, and friezes, including hunting scenes. Those who have little interest in archaeology or art history, however, may find some of the technical details of Somerville’s excavation and the identification of the artifacts to be challenging, if not tedious. Ironically, of the six photographs of ancient Assyrian art which I found in art history texts, the Ishtar Gate (restored) is now in Berlin, two friezes are in the Metropolitan Museum, and three are in the British Museum. None of the texts mention any collection in Iraq.

  • Amazon readers rating: starsfrom 82 reviews
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"The Ruby in Her Navel"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple JAN 28, 2007)

"Young man, be warned, I do not like contradiction. Friends, enemies, it is all one, it is like the ocean, all one salt.  Do you search for sweet water among the billows?  You are young, take the advice…Do not trouble yourself with such useless distinctions.  They weaken your eyes and spoil your aim.  Know the flight of the duck and where to wait for its passing."

Author of strong historical novels containing well developed themes, Barry Unsworth focuses here on life in 1149 in Palermo, Sicily.  Power struggles between east and west have left King Roger of Sicily hard pressed to maintain his throne.  The Bishop of Rome and the Pope do not recognize his rule, and both Conrad Hohenstaufen (ruler of the west) and Manuel Comnenus (ruler of the east) are threatening to invade Sicily to secure their own power.  Palermo has always been a tolerant, multi-ethnic center, with many Muslims working for the king, but as palace intrigues become more complex, a faction promoting a unified Christian front has been making false accusations, not only against Muslims but against Jews and other "outsiders."

Thurstan Beauchamp, who narrates this tale, is a young Christian, the son of a Norman knight and a Saxon mother, who moved to Italy in 1125.  When his father joins a monastery, leaving Thurstan landless and without the opportunity to become a knight, Thurstan accepts work in the Diwan of Control, the central financial office at the palace.  His patron is Yusuf Ibn Mansur, a politically savvy and honest official, who teaches Thurstan the protocol which will enable him, eventually, to become an influential employee of the king, if he can only avoid the pitfalls of the numerous factions and their plots.

Since Thurstan is also "Purveyor of Pleasures and Shows," responsible for finding entertainments for the king and the court, he travels throughout Europe, and it is in this role that he finds and hires a group of five Middle Eastern performers, including Nesrin, a belly dancer extraordinaire, to come to Palermo to perform for the king.  Thurstan's attraction to Nesrin becomes complicated when on the same trip he also reconnects with Lady Alicia, a young woman with whom he was in love when they were teenagers being trained for court life.  Forced to marry when she was still a young teenager, she is now a widow of considerable wealth, and Thurstan finds that all his old feelings for her have returned.

Unsworth's inclusion of fine details of twelfth century life give vibrancy to his story. The intrigues and court politics, the machinations and jousting for power, and the deceits and betrayals, however complicated they become in the course of the novel, are no more complicated than the relationships Thurstan maintains with Nesrin and Lady Alicia, and as the women move in different circles from Thurstan, Unsworth uses these women to expand his picture of life at court in all its ethnic complexity.  Wonderful scenes such as those in which Thurstan visits the king's church in Palermo to observe the stunning mosaic work being created by Byzantine craftsmen, and in which he must obtain and bring back to Palermo the small white herons that the king's falcons like to hunt, add color and excitement to his picture of mid-twelfth century life. The language is formal, with an "archaistic" tone befitting the period, and the continuing imagery of light and shadow emphasizes the ethnic and cultural differences among the competing ethnic groups and the conflicts within Thurstan's soul. 

Though Unsworth tells a fascinating story, full of excitement, he telegraphs much of the action through obvious foreshadowing.  In addition, Thurstan's naivete, which makes him a sympathetic "hero" and provides excuses for some of his blunders, is a bit unrealistic, considering his high level of responsibility in the king's court.  Still, The Ruby in Her Navel, more complex than some of Unsworth's most recent novels, is filled with vivid detail within a fascinating historical context, and its emphasis on Thurstan's political and romantic coming-of-age will make it popular with lovers of historical novels with well-developed themes and images.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 19 reviews


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About the Author:

Barry UnsworthBarry Unsworth was born in 1930. He grew up in a small mining community in County Durham, in the north of England. After studying English at Manchester University and completing two years national service, he lived in France for a year where he taught English. He travelled extensively in Greece and Turkey during the 1960s, teaching at the Universities of Istanbul and Athens.

Pascali's Island, later made into a film, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1980. In 1992 Unsworth was joint winner of the Booker Prize for Sacred Hunger which tied with Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient. Morality Play, published in 1995, was also shortlisted for the Booker. He was awarded an honorary Litt.D. by Manchester University in 1998. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

He lived in Umbria Italy and died June 5, 2012. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014