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. (Oct.)
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Nan A. Talese
October 16, 2006
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Excerpt from The Ruby in Her Navel by Barry Unsworth
I 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. Some said it had been stolen by a lover of hers--who had gone to the stake for it--from the crown of King Roger of Sicily, others that it had been a bribe from Conrad Hohenstaufen for her help in a plot to kill that same king. The plot had failed, they said, but she had kept the ruby and paid for it in a way that contented Conrad even more than the death of his enemy, vindictive as he was. As time passed the stories ranged further and grew wilder: the gem was a gift from the Caliph of Bagdad; it was sent her by secret courier from the Great Khan of the Mongols, with promises of more wealth if she would only come and dance for him and share his bed. And of course there were those who said that Nesrin was a shameless woman and the ruby was the reward of her pledge with the Devil. The troubadour who accompanied her made songs about the ruby, some happy, some sad, and this confused people even more. Neither of these two ever told the truth of it, no matter who asked, whether prince or peasant. I am the only one who knows the whole story: I, Thurstan. Any human life lies in the future as well as in the past, of however short duration that future may prove to be; the two are hinged together like a door that swings, and that swinging is the present moment. To begin a story one must choose a time when the door swings wide, and this came for me on a day late in April of 1149 when Yusuf Ibn Mansur asked me to remain with him at the end of what we called the majlis, the gathering of officials that was held twice monthly in the royal palace of Palermo. He asked me quite openly, rather carelessly, as if it was an afterthought, something that might have easily been overlooked. But it was rare indeed that Yusuf overlooked anything. What better way of disarming suspicion than to speak in the hearing of all? There was nothing strange about my remaining there, about our having things to say in private: he was the Lord of the Diwan of Control and I was his subordinate in the same chancery. But secrecy was ingrained in him; and he knew, as I knew--indeed, it was one of the things he had striven to teach me in the years I had served under him--that secrecy is best served by an appearance of openness. The majlis itself has stayed in my memory because it was enlivened by a quarrel. I had only recently returned from Naples, where I had made an attempt to bribe the Count's jester, a dwarf named Leo, to return with me to Palermo as a gift to the King. Though much tempted, he had refused, being afraid of the Count's wrath, of being followed and strangled. This mission I had undertaken in my capacity as Purveyor of Pleasures and Shows, my official title in the Diwan of Control, a resounding one, but in fact there was only myself and my clerk and bookkeeper Stefanos and the doorman. I did not speak of this failure at the majlis; it was my practice in any case to say as little as possible at these meetings. I was distrusted as a man who belonged nowhere. I worked for a Moslem lord, I was not a Norman of France, being born in northern England of a Saxon mother and a landless Norman knight. My father brought us to Italy in the Year of Our Lord 1125, when I was still a child. He hoped to find advancement under the Norman rule, and he did so. My mother died some years later, struggling to give me a brother. My father . . . But more of my father later. It was the eunuch Martin, a palace Saracen, that brought on the quarrel. He had words to say about a disrespectful incursion into the women's quarter of the palace on the part of certain drunken Norman knights. Spokesman for the Normans that morning was William of Vannes, who hotly denied the charge, clenching his huge fists and glaring at wizened Martin, in his green turban and saffron robe, as if he would like to pound him to pie