The Ruby in Her Navel

Written by Barry Unsworth
Review by Ilysa Magnus

Set during the brief but glittering rule of the Norman kings, this beautifully written novel opens in Palermo where Arab, Christian and Jew live together in an uneasy truce. Thurstan Beauchamp is the Christian son of a Norman knight deprived of his status when his father forswears his worldly goods and becomes a monk; thus, he is driven by a vain ambition that seemingly knows no bounds. Thurstan works for a Muslim Arab in the palace’s central finance office, where bribes and blackmail are set in motion, and part of the job description is to gather secret information for King Roger of Sicily.

Thurstan is dispatched to uncover the myriad conspiracies threatening to topple the kingdom, both from without and within. On his journeys, he rediscovers a woman he loved in his youth, pledging his troth to her, knowing little of her history. He then encounters a mysterious dance troupe which he engages and brings back to the Court to entertain the king. Thurstan’s literal journeys are triggers for the more significant, spiritual journey upon which he is about to embark. How the chivalric Thurstan deals with the deception and cruelty that surrounds him and his own unremitting ambition is at the crux of the story.

This is a novel for our times. The tensions of tribe, race and religion which remain unresolved today are mirrored in the interactions between the questioning Thurstan and people who, like himself, are forced to deal with vast and often insoluble cultural differences. There is so much detail that this is by no means an easy and light read, but rather a complex novel that demands to be savored.

A highly recommended, intense and demanding book.