Barry Unsworth captures the world on the cusp of momentous change. World War I has not yet started, but the major Western nations already have begun to ally themselves around economic concerns. Further, England has felt the pulse of the future, and it lies not in steam or coal, but in oil. One of the richest untapped oilfields in the world is in the Mesopotamian region of the Middle East. Home to the ancient civilizations whose story is largely hidden below layers and layers of obscuring sand, dirt and rubble, this land holds the key to the world's past and its future. Before Iraq, before oil cartels, when Shell was just a wisp of a company, the land between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers was the home to many foreigners, but they were mostly there to dig up the artifacts of the Sumerians, the Babylonians, the Akkadians, and the Assyrians, not to drill for oil. Unsworth puts us in front row seats to witness the turning point.
Unsworth's story starts quietly and simply. Somerville is a British archaeologist. He doesn't have fancy academic credentials, but he has staked his life's savings on the excavation of a mound in the desert. His assistant, Palmer, has more credentials but not as much field experience. In this their third season, with nothing extraordinary to show for their efforts, their belief in the importance of the mound is waning. Further bad news hovers on the horizon. The Germans are building a railroad that Somerville believes will run straight through his mound, destroying all his work and any potential to make a name for himself. He becomes more obsessed and uncommunicative as he perceives the railroad getting closer, but even his taciturnity is hiding churning emotions and frantic thoughts.
Although Somerville is the center around which the other characters play, there are intrigues and plots aplenty of which he remains ignorant. His wife, Edith, and their young guest, Patricia, do not bond despite being the only females at the excavation. Their philosophies and temperaments are quite different. Well-educated and opinionated, Patricia is heading towards a modern world of universal suffrage, while Edith believes her place is behind a strong and forceful man. If only Edith were married to a strong and forceful man, she thinks! Perhaps one of the many male characters that shuttle in and out of the story would do instead. There's Major Manning, a harrumphing, the sun-never-sets-on-the-empire proper British soldier. There's Elliot, an American geologist sent by the British, or maybe the Germans, or maybe the Americans to ascertain where the oil lies. There's Jehar, a member of a local tribe, who is the messenger of doom, bringing Somerville periodic reports of the railroad's inexorable progress towards him.
It is actually Jehar's story that takes second place. He is a young man in a difficult world. It is hard to keep himself alive, let alone raise the exorbitant bride price he needs to marry a beautiful local girl. Jehar is a fabulist, and he concocts stories to keep his beloved enthralled and stories to keep Somerville dependent on him. Unsworth draws Jehar and Somerville closer to the point of intersection, where their tragedies will meet.
We are drawn to the same theme throughout time. Each of the ancient civilizations rose and fell. Even the violent and proud Assyrian nation, the one of most interest to Somerville, was eventually defeated by allied neighbors. The ebb and flow of cultures, civilizations, nations is also reflected around the dinner table at the homesite. Major Manning represents the British Empire, whose sun is setting. Fahir Bey, a Turkish government representative sent to check on Somerville, will see the Ottoman Empire fade into history. Edith's view of what a woman and wife should be clashes with the modern views of Patricia, and it will be Edith's views consigned to the political dustbin. And finally, Somerville, whose passion lies in the past, must deal with the looming war and the irrevocable place oil will play in the world's economy. He tries to save the past, but winds up a victim of the future.
Unsworth is a marvel himself. He manages to create a compelling novel humming with tension, but without needing to show much action. He takes a place relevant to us today and shows us the genesis of our current conflict. He describes a big story by showing us a lot of little ones. In Unsworth's coda, even as he describes what happens to his characters after the main events of the book, we know that their new world is bound to change yet again.