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The Ruby in Her Navel: A Novel of Love and Intrigue in the 12th Centuryby Barry Unsworth
Synopses & Reviews
Set in the Middle Ages during the brief yet glittering rule of the Norman kings, The Ruby in Her Navel is a tale in which the conflicts of the past portend the present. The novel opens in Palermo, in which Latin and Greek, Arab and Jew live together in precarious harmony. Thurstan Beauchamp, the Christian son of a Norman knight, works for Yusuf, a Muslim Arab, in the palace's central finance office, a job which includes the management of blackmail and bribes, and the gathering of secret information for the king.
But the peace and prosperity of the kingdom is being threatened, internally as well as externally. Known for his loyalty but divided between the ideals of chivalry and the harsh political realities of his tumultuous times, Thurstan is dispatched to uncover the conspiracies brewing against his king. During his journeys, he encounters the woman he loved as a youth; and the renewed promise of her love, as well as the mysterious presence of an itinerant dancing girl, sends him on a spiritual odyssey that forces him to question the nature of his ambition and the folly of uncritical reverence for authority.
With the exquisite prose and masterful narrative drive that have earned him widespread acclaim, Barry Unsworth transports the reader to a distant past filled with deception and mystery, and whose racial, tribal, and religious tensions are still with us today.
"Enticing titles are typical of Unsworth (Sacred Hunger); his gleam, this time out, is dimmed by the setting. Thurstan Beauchamp, royal purveyor of pleasures and shows in the 12th-century Kingdom of Sicily, laboriously narrates his daily rounds, which involve delicate low-level negotiations and machinations. Four pages are devoted to the sale of three mules, in language as artificially antique and exotic as it is languorous. Relief comes in the sudden appearance of Lady Alicia, who had been Thurstan's love back when he was on a track to knighthood. Bittersweet reflections on his thwarted destiny provide some of the most affecting moments. But the lady is too good to be true, and she proves central to a vile plot in which Thurstan betrays a friend. Perfidy brings epiphany; Thurstan realizes Alicia could not have seduced his soul had he not invested her with the power. And Alicia is not the 'Lady' of the title: that distinction belongs to Nesrin, the smolderingly beautiful belly dancer whose name appears on the first page, but whose story is teasingly withheld until further in. It is she who provides the inspiration for Thurstan's self-exploration, burnishing a mind of which we learn rather too much." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Barry Unsworth has written about topics as varied as the Atlantic slave trade, theater in 14th-century Britain and politics during the Trojan War. In each case, he highlights the foibles, crimes and moral dilemmas of the past. Strange thing is — and it's one of Unsworth's strengths — those foibles, crimes and moral dilemmas seem a lot like what we're up to in the present moment. He has a knack for... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) making the past seem authentic in its historical detail while injecting his tales with lessons relevant to our contemporary struggles. That's the case once again in 'The Ruby in Her Navel.' The backdrop is the complex world of 12th-century Sicily. The Norman King Roger oversees a multicultural society in which Christian, Muslim, Jew, Latin and Greek coexist in an uneasy truce. The air daily fills with Muslim calls to prayer and the tolling of monastery bells. The royal coffers are full. The populace should be pleased, but instead this shared prosperity and peace rub people the wrong way. It doesn't seem that anybody — Christians or Muslims especially — expects this experiment to succeed. Thurstan Beauchamp, the Christian son of a Norman knight, works under a Muslim Arab in charge of the king's finance office. He acquires herons for the king's falcons to hunt, delivers messages, secures entertainers, hands out bribes and pays for assassins. But his real focus is on his own quest for success and love. He's out to win the hand of his childhood sweetheart, Alicia, and hopes to gain a knighthood in the bargain. He's also carnally drawn to a young dancer, Nesrin, who gives the book its title. With his attention thus aroused and divided, he stumbles his way into — and plays a part in — a murderous plot that puts his mentor's and his king's lives in danger. One of them lives to the end. One of them doesn't. Intrigue, shadowy meetings, surprise encounters, covert missions, all keep the plot moving forward quickly. It's a good thing, too, because Thurstan himself is not a particularly engaging narrator. He is complex, to be sure, but he's hard to like: vain, self-centered and plagued by unfulfilled ambition. He chafes against the fact that he has been denied what he sees as his rightful station in life. He is so focused on advancement and so blind to the machinations of those around him that he becomes a pawn, used again and again for objectives he claims to find odious. Everybody — even his beloved Alicia — takes advantage of him. In a particularly low moment, he's asked to betray a friend for his own gain; he doesn't respond commendably. The novel's strongest suit is that the convoluted plot lends suspense right up to the final pages. Thurstan manages to shake off his self-pity long enough to grapple with the situation he helped create. The climactic scene has a decidedly cinematic, thriller-like feel to it, and it's refreshing to finally see Thurstan taking action. Like the best historical fiction writers, Unsworth tells his story while also fleshing out the backdrop with details that ground us in the moment and make it tangibly real. He makes his characters' individual experiences representative of larger concerns. Near the end of the book, Nesrin, speaking imperfect Greek, creates a metaphor to explain Thurstan's central flaw: 'You make a shape that is not true,' she says, 'and you keep to that shape and do not see it is the wrong one. ... You keep to it, nothing can change you.' With this, Nesrin has understood things better than any of the nobles and knights and priests in the pages of this book. It is questionable whether Thurstan will truly break with his nature, but that's not the point. Through Nesrin, the author may well be speaking of the culture that Thurstan represents. It was not only Thurstan who made shapes — philosophies, political theories, religious doctrines — that are not true. Western societies have done the same. We still struggle to maintain and expand our cultural supremacy with wishfully shaped notions, and Unsworth seems to be giving Nesrin words intended as a warning for our modern ears. 'Do you not see?' she says. 'If we do not break the bad shape, it will break us.' David Anthony Durham's most recent novel is 'Pride of Carthage.' His fourth, 'Acacia,' will be published next year." Reviewed by David Anthony Durham, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"The twisting plotline...conceals as much as it reveals in this heartrending tale, which can be read either as an exceptional historical novel or a modern parable on the dangers of blind patriotism." Booklist
"[R]ichly imagined....Unsworth's luscious history is ripe territory for a dialogue on the ever-present struggle against intolerance, a seemingly inevitable human frailty." Kirkus Reviews
"The Ruby in Her Navel is captivating, sensuous, and immensely moving. It helps us understand our own contemporary world; a rare achievement. This is Barry Unsworth, the master of resonant historical fiction, on top form." Jim Crace
"An exotic tale of love, intrigue, betrayal and revenge....Unsworth writes beautifully. Too many historical details, however, bog down the book and divert from the main storyline." Seattle Times
"Booker Prize winner Unsworth creates a complex narrative in a historical era of uncertainty....However, the dialog fails to give the supporting characters distinctive voices that reflect their status and background." Library Journal
About the Author
Barry Unsworth won the Booker Prize in 1992 for Sacred Hunger; his next novel, Morality Play, was a Booker nominee and a bestseller in both the United States and Great Britain. His other novels include After Hannibal, The Hide, and Pascali's Island, which was also shortlisted for the Booker Prize and was made into a feature film. He lives in Umbria with his wife and recently held the position of Visiting Fellow at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop.
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