Synopses & Reviews
“A first novel of considerable maturity: powerful, original, cunningly constructed, and timely.” —Julian Barnes, author of The Sense of an Ending
After years alone in a cell, an aging prisoner is released without explanation, expelled into a great city now utterly unfamiliar to him. Broken by years of brutality at the hands of the prison guards, he scrounges for scraps, sleeping wild, until a museum curator rescues him from an assault. The museum has just opened its most controversial exhibit: a perfect replica of the marshes, an expansive wilderness still wracked by conflict. There the man had spent years as a doctor among the hated and feared marshmen, who have been colonized but never conquered.
Then Marshlands reveals one of its many surprises: it is written in reverse. The novel leaps backward once, twice, returning to the marshes and unraveling time to reveal the doctors ambiguous relationship to the austerely beautiful land and its people. As the pieces of his past come together, a great crime and its consequences begin to take shape. The true nature of the crime and who committed it will be saved for the breathtaking ending—or, rather, for the beginning.
In the tradition of Wilfred Thesigers The Marsh Arabs and J. M. Coetzees Waiting for the Barbarians, Marshlands explores a culture virtually snuffed out under Saddam Hussein, and how we cement our identities by pointing at someone to call “other.” Elegant, brief, and searing, Matthew Olshans Marshlands shivers with the life of a fragile, lost world.
"The first literary novel from Olshan, the author of several books for young readers (including The Flown Sky), covers a contentious 30-year period (leading up to the present day) in the Iraqi marshes. This broad scope is compressed into fewer than 200 pages, beginning when an unnamed prisoner is released without explanation from a long sentence. He finds himself wandering until he's taken in by the curator of a museum which has recently opened a large-scale replica of the marshes. The encounter provides the springboard for the story, which skips around chronologically: first, the reader sees the crime in the marshes that put the man in prison; then, in a section that jumps even further back in time, the reader sees how the man's connection to the marshlands was first forged. The man, it turns out, used to be a doctor who treated residents of the marshes, and it's largely because of his devotion to them that he finds trouble from the government, which is trying to seize their land. Written sparsely and almost mechanically, the narrative is particularly attuned to the region's customs and culture, and what happens when they are disturbed. Despite the novel's ability to capture its place and time, its characters and story (including the revelations) never really take off." Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
About the Author
Matthew Olshan is the author of The Flown Sky, a fantasy for young readers, and Finn, a novel for young adults. He lives in Baltimore, Maryland.