I’ve always been an admirer of Unsworth. His novels are thoughtful and rich historical fiction. And this one is no exception, at least on the history end. The setting is the Middle East in the early days of oil exploration, just prior to the first world war. The reverberations through to today are obvious. And with the war in Iraq, the place names are all too familiar.
Power, domination, and especially the decline of Empire, seem to be very much on Unsworth’s mind here. While his straight-laced English archaeologist (John Somerville) , out to make a name for himself, digs deep to find the story of that place and its passing, there are otherswho are digging to unleash the vast wealth that oil portends. The two concerns naturally clash. There’s the power of big business and the interests of the state at play here, as well. And there’s espionage and positioning for political advantage.
And there’s romance. Which seems out of place. And it;s here where Unsworth (it seems to me) stumbles. When he does his own digging and attempts to dig below the surface of the male-female relationships. But I do like the way he writes about history. Which always makes me guiltily ask myself: why not read the history?