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Friday, September 17, 2010

"The Ruby in Her Navel" by Barry Unsworth (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)


Barry Unsworth at Wikipedia
Order "The Ruby in Her Navel" HERE or HERE(ebook)

INTRODUCTION: "The Ruby in Her Navel" is a 2006 (Booker longlisted) historical fiction novel by Booker prize winner Barry Unsworth that showcases why fantasy lovers should try the genre. Like last year's Father of Locks, "The Ruby in Her Navel" transports one into a familiar but also exotic milieu that is exquisitely rendered. This time it is the multiethnic and multireligious Norman Kingdom of Sicily at its apogee in 1149 under King Roger II. The blurb below gives a flavor of the novel's subject:

"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..."

FORMAT/CLASSIFICATION: "The Ruby in Her Navel" stands at about 400 pages divided into 30 numbered chapters and is narrated by Thurstan Beauchamp. "The Ruby in Her Navel" is an adventure novel of intrigue, introspection, conspiracies and love, all in a superbly rendered atmosphere of a long lost culture that is both familiar and exotic.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Instead of a lengthy overview, the first page of the novel which hooked me on the story tells it better:

"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 the past, of however short duration that future may prove to be; they 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 the 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 were an afterthought, something that might 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. He had refused, though much tempted, 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 were 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 1128, 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."


So if the excerpt above does not hook you on the story, why read the novel?


While Thurstan's voice is absolutely compelling to the end, the story itself is quite interesting, full of twists of turns and with foreshadowing that is quite subtle since while it gives a hint of where the story goes, the path is not straightforward.


The novel is immersive and it is hard to put down until the end with the last 100 pages being non-stop suspense. The secondary characters shine throughout: the most notable is Yusuf the Moslem lord who plucked the 17 year old Thurstan whose life has just spun out of control and away from his knighthood path that he seemed firmly set on from literally childhood, out of obscurity as a King's bodyguard. Despite cultural and religious differences, Yusuf is almost like a father to Thurstan and the relationship between the two is key to the novel.


Dreams die hard though and the novel illustrates this brilliantly when rich and widowed - so more or less free to choose a new husband - Thurstan's teenage flame Alicia appears seemingly out of nowhere and the old longings of the hero are resurrected to conflict with his desire of succeeding Yusuf as Diwan leader when the later ascends in the court hierarchy as well as with his infatuation with the free spirited Nesrin of the cover...


The title is a bit of a red herring and the first several lines quoted above embody this misdirection, but I leave to the reader to find out why. The novel has dastardly conspirators with nefarious plots, deadly assassins, rebels and loyalists and the action interweaves seamlessly in the rich tapestry of world building and medieval discourse.


"The Ruby in Her Navel" (A+) is another novel that came out of nowhere for me; opened by chance I just got hooked from the first page and could not stop reading it until finished, so I definitely plan to try more by the author, including his most celebrated novel the 1992 Booker winning novel Sacred Hunger that moves the scene to the 18th century and the slave trade.

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