cover image Marshlands


Matthew Olshan. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $23 (176p) ISBN 978-0-374-19939-5

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. (Feb.)