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Dawn breaks at an archaeological dig in the middle of the Arabian desert a few months before the Great War. Between the Belikh and Khabur rivers, at the edge of what was once a magnificent, bombastic and cruel empire, Somerville has risked his wealth and marriage trying to emulate his boyhood hero, Henry Layard, a man who, apparently with little more than youth and enthusiasm on his side, revealed to the world the marvels of the Assyrians.
Accompanied by his wife, Somerville has been digging at Tell Erdek for three years with nothing to show. He feels dogged by failure and Edith is losing faith in his vision. Then with the spring, comes a beguiling find that could turn his fortunes around.
Encouraged, he intensifies his search. But as his work becomes more intriguing and his mind focuses more and more on his puzzle, dinner becomes a bit of a chore. In addition to Palmer, his assistant, and Patricia, the daughter of a friend, Somerville and his wife frequently receive visitors, invariably offering desert hospitality and not-always-polite conversation at an ersatz English table. It wasn’t uncommon to host the Ottoman commissioner, British surveyors, free-lance journalists, and even some bizarrely entrepreneurial Biblical researchers.
Yet, these are no chance travellers and few are exactly who they seem. Routine and discovery. Industry and destiny. Vision and duplicity. Unsworth enjoys writing about the clash of the ordinary with the powerful, the bond between the past and the present. There is a little mousy jerboa that bedevils archaeologists. It burrows into the desert and shifts earth up and down its tunnels so that the dawn of history might be confused with the day before yesterday.
Nine of twelve in our Book Circle liked Land of Marvels and would look for Barry Unsworth again. Some didn’t enjoy the narrative voice switching between characters, but most thought the author had a knack for bringing the past to life.
We meet again on Thursday, 7th April, when we will discuss, The Help by Kathryn Stockett.
Withiel Book Circle – reading list
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