The Ruby in Her Navel: A Novel of Love and Intrigue in the 12th Century Hardcover – Oct 17 2006
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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.)
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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
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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.
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.
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
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.
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.