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The Ruby in Her Navel: A Novel of Love and Intrigue in the 12th Century [Hardcover]

Barry Unsworth


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Book Description

Oct. 17 2006

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.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Nan A. Talese; 1st Edition edition (Oct. 17 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385509634
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385509633
  • Product Dimensions: 15.3 x 3.4 x 21.7 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 612 g
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #1,247,043 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description

From Publishers Weekly

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. (Oct.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

It is 1149, and all is not well in Norman Sicily. The Second Crusade's disastrous failure has turned opinion against Palermo's Muslims, but King Roger's magnanimity toward his multicultural populace keeps the land in harmony--or so it seems. Thurstan Beauchamp, a Norman Christian, works at the government office overseeing finances, accounting, and bribes. Still smarting at the loss of his inheritance, he jumps at the chance to reconnect with Alicia, his noble childhood sweetheart. But what of Nesrin, the Anatolian belly dancer who stirs his lust? The undercurrents of political and romantic intrigue prove too much for naive, idealistic Thurstan, whose chivalrous inner core begins to crack as he travels on missions for his king. Unsworth's subtle prose conjures up an authentically realized medieval world in which one's nationality and religion overshadow everything, and peace is only an illusion. The twisting plotline, heavy with foreshadowing, 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. Sarah Johnson
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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When Nesrin the dancer became famous in the courts of Europe, many were the stories told about the ruby that glowed in her navel as she danced. Read the first page
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Customer Reviews

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Amazon.com: 3.7 out of 5 stars  29 reviews
35 of 39 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Barry Unsworth Fans Rejoice! Oct. 24 2006
By Noble M. Smith - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Spoiler free:

Another great read by a master craftsman. Barry Unsworth refuses to dumb down his books for publishers seeking blockbuster historical fiction novels--novels that read more like screenplays than literature (e.g. Gates of Fire and Pompei). Those of you who were enthralled by the tormented protagonists of Unsworth's Sacred Hunger, The Rage of the Vulture and Pascali's Island will most likely have no need for a bookmark for Ruby: you'll read this one straight through in a couple of days like I did. And you'll be pleasantly surprised by the ending...such a different fate awaits this book's narrator than the protagonists of the three abovementioned stories. I agree with John Julius Norwich, however, (in his review in the Guardian) that the title of the book is really horrible. And to the publisher Nan A. Talese: What was so wrong with the British version of the cover? That artwork--done in the style of a 12th century illuminated manuscript--is so much more appropriate than the let's-make-it-look-like-Possession--cover put out for the U.S. market. N. Smith, author of Stolen from Gypsies.
15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Torturous politics, tortured hero Jan. 20 2007
By J. Marren - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This literate, fascinating novel takes place in the turbulent Mediterranean world of the 12th century. It's a chaotic time, as Muslims and Christians skirmish for territorial advantage and the borders between the Muslim and Christian worlds constantly shift. In the kingdom of Sicily, Muslims and Christians live in uneasy alliance under the rule of King Roger, a tolerant monarch whose public goal is an open and peaceful society. But the ambitions of others always undermine such efforts, and the ambitions of Unsworth's hero are no exception. Thurstan Beauchamp is a Norman knight who is forced to serve under a high Muslim official in the King's government. He's the purveyor of the King's amusements, a role that sends him far and wide to find new entertainment for his King. Thurstan has never gotten over the loss of his chance to become a true knight in service to the King, and Thurstan's naive view of his King as a shining ruler leads him to become the unwitting pawn of the powers at court.

Nothing is as it seems, and Unsworth slowly reveals twists and turns of plot in a way that reminded me of Umberto Eco. It's inevitable that Thurstan is tempted into betraying his mentor, the victim of his own failed ambitions of knighthood. As it turns out, Thurstan has been the one betrayed, but luckily the sultry Nesrin presents him with an escape.

The title and cover of this book are a bit misleading, as Nesrin is a minor player in the drama until the very end. Marketers had the final say, no doubt. I'm a big fan of Unsworth, but in this story I thought he was a bit too enamoured of his clever plot, and Thurstan is hard to like. But I found the Christian/Muslim theme particularly relevan--neither side comes off all that well, and the description of the recent disastrous Crusade was gruesome. Unsworth is a serious literate writer--"Ruby" is not his best, but it's well worth it for Unsworth fans.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "Know the flight of the duck and where to wait for its passing." Nov. 29 2006
By Mary Whipple - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Famous for his strong historical novels containing well developed themes, Barry Unsworth here focuses on life in 1149 in Palermo, Sicily. Power struggles between east and west have left King Roger of Sicily hard pressed to maintain his throne. The Bishop of Rome and the Pope do not recognize his rule, and both Conrad Hohenstaufen (ruler of the west) and Manuel Comnenus (ruler of the east) are threatening to invade Sicily to secure their own power. Though Palermo has always been a tolerant, multi-ethnic community, a faction promoting a unified Christian front has been making false accusations against Muslims, Jews, and other "outsiders" to secure their own power.

Thurstan Beauchamp, who narrates this tale, is a young Christian, the son of a Norman knight and a Saxon mother. Thurstan works in the Diwan of Control, the central financial office at the palace, where his patron is Yusuf Ibn Mansur, a politically savvy and honest official, who will help him become influential if Thurstan can only avoid the pitfalls of the numerous factions and their plots. Traveling throughout Europe as "Purveyor of Pleasures and Shows," Thurstan finds and hires a group of five Yazidis, including Nesrin, a belly dancer extraordinaire, to come to Palermo to perform for the king. His attraction to Nesrin, however, becomes complicated when on the same trip he also reconnects with Lady Alicia, his great (lost) love from the past. Now a widow of considerable wealth, Lady Alicia returns Thurstan's feelings.

Unsworth's inclusion of fine details of twelfth century life give vibrancy to his story. Wonderful, intimate scenes--Thurstan's visit to the king's church in Palermo to observe the stunning mosaic work being created by Byzantine craftsmen, for example--add color and excitement to his picture of mid-twelfth century life. The formal, "archaistic" language befits the period, and the continuing imagery of light and shadow emphasizes the ethnic and cultural contrasts among the competing ethnic groups and the conflicts within Thurstan's soul.

Though Unsworth tells a fascinating story, full of excitement, he telegraphs much of the action through obvious foreshadowing throughout. In addition, Thurstan's naivete, which makes him a sympathetic "hero" and provides excuses for some of his blunders, is a bit unrealistic, considering his high level of responsibility within the king's court. Still, The Ruby in Her Navel, more complex than some of Unsworth's other recent novels, is filled with vibrant detail within a fascinating historical context, and its emphasis on Thurstan's political and romantic coming-of-age will make it popular with lovers of well written, well researched historical novels. n Mary Whipple
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A philosophical commentary in the disguise of a historical novel Dec 2 2006
By Jane Brodsky - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
My first reaction to Barry Unsworth's newest gem--a masterpiece that moved me instantly--was to turn back to the first page, wanting to reread the book and savor it at a new level. The plot is well illuminated by previous reviews, detailing the complex facets of a medieval society gripped by lust for power and wealth, of noble factions, with the newly-emerging Roman Catholic Church reaching for the helm. I leave that aside for other considerations.

Like Noble M. Smith before me, I read the book in two sittings, occasionally with my finger on the lines burdened by excessive detail of every day life in Palermo, or the convoluted contemporary politics, which--yes--do remind us much of our own times. While tripping over every foreshadowing, I wondered why such a literary genius needs to do that in a story that reads for a while like an armchair-time-travel rather than a fiction with a real plot. One answer arrives in the last fifty-or-so pages, finding me screaming at the gullible Thurstan Beauchamp to wake up and become the true white knight he so wished to become and he does--in a surprisingly frenetic finale.

Yet, Unsworth moves the reader far beyond the plot burdened by more names and plot-twists than the number of bees would settle on Saracen sweet cake and he does it by his venerable insight. This point reminds me of the setting of Verdi's Don Carlos in sixteenth-century Spain and the mysterious death of Prince Philip as a subterfuge for the nasty politics in nineteenth-century Paris, the original opera setting. Like Verdi, Unsworth is a political commentator pointing to the peace in our own world as a fragile entity. That thought reminds me of the passage in which the surface of the pool broken by Thurstan's hand becomes a place of cheating images he years to abandon.

I cannot but marvel at the obvious depth of the author's meticulous research, but especially at his ability to assimilate it--almost as Thurstan's reincarnation. That the author is not a ghost is proved by the fact that his commentary is a not product of an impetuous, young man, but that of a mature writer uttering "veni, vidi, vici"--I came, I saw, and I mastered (all that is to know about our own transparent world). The author's philosophy drives the plot.

Don't buy the book because of the cheap cover with Ingres' Odalisque (isn't every historical novel sold these days with a naked female torso?). Thurstan' sacred and profane loves for the noble Alicia and seemingly common Nesrin are but a pretext for a much deeper story, far from commonplace romance tales. Even his coupling with Nesrin is like poetry of lines in the book's prose that seems heavy, artificial at times, but so admirable after so many, many worthless books that publishers produce for the sake of a big buck.

Too bad five stars are the limit. For me, sky is the limit.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Premature Renaissance Dec 22 2008
By Roger Brunyate - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
The sparkle is real but the title misleading. The dancer with the jeweled navel is a secondary character, and the implied sensuality is only a small part of the book. But the glittering background to Barry Unsworth's novel is not fiction at all, but well-researched history -- the brief renaissance of art and culture that flowered in Sicily in the mid-12th century, under the rule of the Norman King Roger II. "For these decades," Unsworth writes, "three great religious and artistic traditions -- those of Islam, Byzantium, and Western Christendom -- lived together in that small space, merged into the uniquely rich and brilliant culture that we know as Norman Sicily and produced in art and architecture works that dazzled contemporaries as they dazzle us today." It was a rare period of cultural pluralism that might be taken as a ideal model for today, but unfortunately it collapsed under the forces of intolerance and Northern European domination. Unsworth tells of one small stage in that collapse.

His protagonist, Thurstan Beauchamp, is the son of a Norman knight but not ennobled himself. Seemingly destined for a life of middle management, he has a salaried position in King Roger's treasury. His department (or "diwan") is headed by a Moslem, Yussuf ibn Mansur, who makes Thurstan his special charge, sending him on increasingly sensitive missions to further the King's concerns. Or his own. For it soon becomes clear that there are competing forces at work within the government, and Thurstan does not see clearly enough to know when he is being used. And when he is unexpectedly reunited with his childhood sweetheart Alicia, who has moved upward in the social world while he moved down, he loses such judgment as he once had. But not completely; the last few chapters of the book move in unexpected directions, showing Thurstan as more than a pawn in other people's games.

Norton seldom have much success with the covers of Barry Unsworth's novels, but they hit a new low in reducing the throbbing gold of a Byzantine mosaic to a brown sludge. I wish I could say that the impression of the cover was swept aside by the brilliance of Unsworth's writing, but unfortunately there is a sludginess there too. The narrative voice he gives Thurstan has an archaic literary quality that seldom conveys the excitement of actual experience but wraps it in a kind of verbal sacking. It is also difficult for an unfamiliar reader to keep track of the strange names, or to get much sense of the unique political situation that inspired the novel. Had Barry Unsworth printed his historical note that I quoted above as a preface rather than an afterword, and continued the same straightforward style of writing into the book itself, he might have been a lot more successful. For his subject is both brilliant and surprisingly relevant.

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