Friday, January 20, 2023

The Ruby In Her Navel by Barry Unsworth


This novel is set in Italy in 1149.  Thurstan Beauchamp had been raised to be a knight, only to have his life plans crushed when his father became a monk and gave their lands and wealth to the Church.  He was taken up by Yusef Ibn Mannsur, an Muslim who was the Lord of the Diwan of Control at the royal palace in Palermo and Thurstan became his assistant.  The office paid all palace bills and arranged a thousand things from day to day.  Thurstan might one day be taking money to a vendor in another city and the next arranging jugglers to entertain the king.

He is sent on a trip to herons for the king's falcons to hunt.  While there, he is astonished to see riding a woman who had been his childhood sweetheart, Alicia.  He had been heartbroken when she was sent at fourteen to Jerusalem to marry a noble there.  They speak and the spark is still there.  Soon all that Thurstan can think of is Alicia and how to win her love again.

In the meantime, his work had led him to hire a dance troupe.  They were a sensation as it was the first instance of belly dancing that had been seen at the palace.  The main dancer was Nesrin, a beautiful woman who danced with a ruby in her navel.  Thurstan is attracted to her but sworn to attain Alicia, who can give him wealth and his dream of being a knight. 

This is the time of the Crusades and there is much political maneuvering between the two factions, Christian and Muslim.  Thurstan is caught between the two as his mentor is Muslim yet his upbringing is Christian.  One of his jobs is to take money to another town to hire an assassin; Thurstan has no idea who is to be killed but it is part of his work to take money to others for purposes he doesn't understand.  All of these factors lead to a stunning climax where Thurstan finally grows up and chooses his life path.

This book was nominated for a Booker Prize.  Unsworth is an author who had multiple Booker nominees and a winner in 1992.  This book is a novel of multiple cultures, of political intrigue and betrayals and of love in a medieval setting.  Thurstan as a young man has much growing up to do to become an adult and the reader will follow him on this path.  This book is recommended for readers of literary and historical fiction. 

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