It is 1914, and in an encampment in the Mesopotamian desert, an English archaeologist called Somerville is working on a dig. His companions include Palmer, his geeky young assistant; Edith, his snobbish and reactionary wife; and Patricia, a bluestocking Girton graduate – rather too outspoken to win Edith’s approval – who’s along for the ride. They break bread, too, with a Major Manning, who travels around, on the pretext of making survey maps, on British government business.
The women, and the main native character, Jehar (Somerville’s untrustworthy eyes-and-ears on the ground), are known in the text by their first names; men are referred to by their second names. This is, I suppose, a symptom of Unsworth’s overall imaginative identification with the conventions of the period – he