The Ruby in Her Navel

by Barry Unsworth

Hardcover, 2006



Call number




Hamish Hamilton Ltd (2006), Hardcover


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. Reading group guide included.… (more)

Media reviews

User reviews

LibraryThing member Brasidas
DRAFT------This is a novel of palace intrigue set in 12th century Sicily. We are in Palermo where King Roger, a Norman, rules a surprisingly contemporary, multi-ethnic realm in which he is careful to try to keep in balance the rights of Christian and Muslim and Jew. Only the Muslim, however, seems
Show More
content with this arrangement, perhaps because Muslims constitute King Roger's closest counselors. The king mistrusts his own people. The Catholics by contrast have just lost the Second Crusade--ignominiously and with heavy loss of life--they are hardly in a mood for pluralism. They seek closer alignment with the Crown, greater control of its offices and pursestrings, and expulsion of Muslims from Sicily. Thurstan Beauchamp, our narrator, works in the palace in the Diwan of Control. He is of mixed Norman ancestry. His supervisor, Yusuf Ibm Mansur, seeks to train him in the arts of suspicion, for he is far too easy to read in his moods and expressions.
Show Less
LibraryThing member Smiler69
I'm never good at describing plot, but a reviewer on Amazon, Mary Whipple, did a great job of it, so I've stolen the following from her:
"Famous for his strong historical novels containing well developed themes, Barry Unsworth here focuses on life in 1149 in Palermo, Sicily. Power struggles between
Show More
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."

My own comments:
Further complicating matters, we learn early on that Thurstan's most cherished dream has been to become a knight and fight in the crusades, as his father has done before him, though this opportunity was taken away from him just when it seemed about to be realised. Now with Lady Alicia's return on the scene, many opportunities beckon. The novel builds up at a moderate pace, all the while filled with period details which inform us about aspects of daily life in 12th century Palermo and the melting pot of cultures which this part of the world presented at the time, which, interestingly enough, must be the case again today (though I say this as pure conjecture, being completely uninformed). Thurstan, narrating in the first person from the vantage point of a period after the events have taken place, is a personable main character, whom we cannot help but empathise with, and much as his naivety and youth show he has yet much to learn, we see the events though his eyes before he had gained the advantage of hindsight, so that the reader is offered only glimpses of the whole, until a complex mystery is revealed.

A jewel of a book which I can't wait to reread to pick up on all the fine intricate details I may have missed the first time. A well-earned five stars for this gem.
Show Less
LibraryThing member dougwood57
Barry Unsworth's The Ruby in Her Navel: A Novel truly is a novel of love and intrigue as the dust jacket promises. The book is another erudite historical mystery driven by Unsworth's superb story-telling skills. Readers may also want to try Unsworth's Morality Play.

The tale is set in 12th century
Show More
Sicily during the rule of the Norman kings (said rule was certainly news to me). The Norman king uses Muslims in some high offices and our heroic protagonist Thurstan works for one of the most highly placed Muslims, Yusuf, `Lord of the Diwan of Control'. In 12th-century Palermo, all races and creeds lived and worked in relative harmony and peace. But the second Crusade has just crashed and there are those who want to end the Muslim influence.

The failure of the Crusade also returns to Sicily Lady Alicia, the woman whom Thurstan loved in his early years. Thurstan's expectations of becoming a knight and Alicia becoming his Lady had been demolished years earlier when his father suddenly gave his land to the Church. Now suddenly she is back and rekindles an improbable love. Alicia, however, is not the most remarkable woman in Unsworth's tale; that special place is reserved for Nesrin, the dancer with the ruby in her navel.

Unsworth delivers layers within layers of intrigue. I was got off guard by the coup de grace - even though after it happened I realized it should have been obvious. The Ruby in Her Navel is historical fiction raised to its pinnacle. Highest recommendation.
Show Less
LibraryThing member ivanfranko
I can only join in the praise for this fine Unsworth novel. He produces the most intricate plots in such well-researched historical settings. A parallel with contemporary world affairs makes this novel even more worth the effort of reading it.
LibraryThing member TheIdleWoman
Readable, but not as gripping as I hoped it would be. It's an interesting fictional excursion into Norman Sicily, but I found it difficult to build up any kind of emotional attachment to the story or characters.
LibraryThing member maryreinert
Thurston is a young man working as a procurer of entertainments for the King of Sicily under the direction of a Moslem man who he feels much respect for. Sicily has a diverse culture with Moslem, Eastern Christians, and Catholics living together in relative peace. However, due to the failed crusade
Show More
of the French King relations between the Christians and Moslems have become tense.

Thurstan's boss is aware of the increased feelings against him among those surrounding the King. The plot thickens as Thurstan is sent on a mysterious mission supposedly to uncover plots against the King. He meets a woman recently widowed whom he knew and loved as a young man; they swear their love to each other and Thurstan finds himself seemingly "climbing the ladder" to higher positions. However, he has been cruelly tricked as he is forced later to betray his employer.

The ruby in her navel refers to a group of musicians and belly dances who he finds on his mission. Nesrin is a beautiful belly dancer who he is attracted to in spite of his love for the first women.

I enjoyed almost all of the book; however, as the workings of the plot began to unfold it was hard to sort through (probably because I was just tired of reading). Still liked the writing and particularly the setting. Good author.

A lot of the tension between Moslem and Christianity demonstrates that things haven't changed and the quest for power and access to power remains just as strong as ever.
Show Less


Original publication date


Physical description

336 p.; 9.29 inches


0241142202 / 9780241142202
Page: 0.2295 seconds