Book Review: New in Fiction

"He who owns the oil will own the world ...": Barry Unsworth's latest is a finely drawn novel set in 1914 Mesopotamia

New in Fiction

Land of Marvels: A Novel

by Barry Unsworth
Nan A. Talese, 304 pp., $26

"He who owns the oil will own the world, he will rule the sea and the land, he will rule his fellowman ... the day will come when oil will be more desired, more sought after than gold." The 100-year reign of oil may now be slowly coming to an end with the birth of green technologies, but back in 1914 Mesopotamia, the prescient appetite for oil, in lieu of coal, was just beginning to be fully realized. It's in this historically rich locale, at this politically volatile time, that Booker Prize-winning author Barry Unsworth sets his novel, the relevance of which is uncanny for obvious reasons. The story is told through a cast of international characters, all with different operational motives. Somerville is a British archeologist searching for an ancient Assyrian palace but worried that a Baghdad-bound railroad being built by the Germans will come right through his site. Jehar is an ambitious, if possibly unscrupulous, Mesopotamian working for Somerville and motivated by his desire to amass a dowry. Elliott is an American geologist posing as an archeologist sent to the region by an oil company to explore for possible drilling sites. Most interesting is Lord Rampling, quick to espouse platitudes boasting of Britain's international benevolence, who from afar exerts the most influence, wheeling and dealing with government officials, international bankers, and private global financial concerns, à la today's Carlyle Group. A host of minor players also adds to the intrigue. The discovery of oil ultimately plays out in dramatically different and unexpected ways for those involved. Shortly thereafter, the area would become a battleground in World War I; the once-mighty Ottoman Empire would be dismembered, and Britain would take control of a vast portion of Mesopotamia. This region, which had never been governed as a single nation, would be named Iraq. It's virtually unavoidable to read this story without peering through the prism of America's current imperialist endeavor. But Unsworth's finely drawn characters and intricately woven relationships provide a flesh-and-blood grounding to the larger political events beginning to unfold. We already know what lies in store nearly a century later.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

READ MORE
More oil
Letters at 3AM: A Big Picture and a Long Game
Letters at 3AM: A Big Picture and a Long Game
A U.S. military powered by biofuels could be a game-changer that ends the oil wars

Michael Ventura, Oct. 19, 2012

GOP Oil Spiel Not So Slick
GOP Oil Spiel Not So Slick
On the Campaign Trail

Lee Nichols, Sept. 19, 2008

More Book Reviews
<i>Presidio</i> by Randy Kennedy
Presidio by Randy Kennedy
For his debut novel, Kennedy creates a road story that portrays the harsh West Texas terrain beautifully and fills it with sympathetic characters.

Jay Trachtenberg, Sept. 14, 2018

Hunting the Golden State Killer in <i>I'll Be Gone in the Dark</i>
Hunting the Golden State Killer in I'll Be Gone in the Dark
How Michelle McNamara tracked a killer before her untimely death

Jonelle Seitz, July 20, 2018

More by Jay Trachtenberg
Ronnie Earle, Gangbuster
Ronnie Earle, Gangbuster
Jesse Sublett revisits Austin’s criminal past in Last Gangster in Austin

June 10, 2022

Inside the Seventies Weed Business in <i>Wild Times in Old Austin</i>
Inside the Seventies Weed Business in Wild Times in Old Austin
Dazed, confused, and profitable

June 10, 2022

KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Mesopotamia, oil, Land of Marvels: A Novel, Barry Unsworth

MORE IN THE ARCHIVES
NEWSLETTERS
One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Behind the scenes at The Austin Chronicle

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle