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Paperback Ruby in Her Navel : A Novel Book

ISBN: 0393330826

ISBN13: 9780393330823

Ruby in Her Navel : A Novel

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Book Overview

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...

Customer Reviews

5 ratings

Torturous politics, tortured hero

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.

"Christendom is a mighty host that is destined to bring the world under its sway."

Twelfth century Sicily is a multicultural society, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Latins and Greeks living in apparent harmony under a Christian king. Cooperation in affairs of a state and economic enterprise benefit all, civilization functioning at the highest level. Unfortunately, the smooth surface of this shared prosperity is deceptive, behind-the-scenes machinations continuing unabated, particularly regarding relations between Christians and Muslims. In spite of the increased influence of Christians and the increasing favor of King Roger, a recent failed Crusade remains a blight on the Christian scorecard: "Peace depends upon the acquiescence of non-Christians to Christian rule." Somewhere in the midst of these competing factions is Thurston Beaucamp, Christian son of a Norman knight whose fortune changes drastically when his father turns to the Church and relinquishes the boy's birthright. Now a purveyor of pleasures and shows, as well as a secret spy under the tutelage of Muslim Yusuf ibn Mansur, the prideful young man steadfastly believes in the mythology of knighthood and the goodness of kings, his youthful enthusiasm as yet untested by an overweening ego and ultimate perfidy. But warring factions are in play, Thurston the unwitting tool of those who would claim religious (and political) ascendance in the region, stealthily removing obstacles such as Thurston's mentor, Yusuf. In his role as purveyor of pleasures, Thurston has discovered a wandering band of exotic dancers, most notably the beautiful, seductive Nesrin. While carnally attracted to Nesrin, Thurston's higher allegiance is to the Lady Alicia, a former childhood sweetheart newly widowed. Upon a chance meeting, the romance rekindled, Alicia pledges her troth, requesting his patience. Meanwhile, Thurston attends his duties with no little distraction, noticing odd behaviors and suspicious activities but failing to interpret the risk appropriately. To that end, he becomes a pawn, his heart blinding him to the painfully inevitable treachery of which he has become an integral part: "Blessing and preaching and ardor do not save us from stupidity and arrogance in the conduct of wars, nor do they save us from defeat." An unforgivable betrayal seemingly balanced by the success of an opportunistic rescue, Thurston is cast into the depths of despair, learning the harsh lessons of politics joined to religion, an epic battle that has shaped the face of history. Questioning the values of a lifetime, Thurston finds unexpected redemption at the hands of the enigmatic Nesrin, who views the world from her own unique perspective: "If we do not break the bad shape, it will break us." Unsworth is at his arcane best when dealing with a complicated civilization, an evolving society tainted with political ambition and tribal rivalries, Thurston a man of the times, self-centered, vain, often of questionable character. Yet he is teachable once his ego has been punctured, the landscape littered with good

A philosophical commentary in the disguise of a historical novel

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.

"Know the flight of the duck and where to wait for its passing."

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

Barry Unsworth Fans Rejoice!

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.
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