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The Ruby in Her Navel: A Novel of Love and Intrigue in the 12th Century [Hardcover]

Barry Unsworth
4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)

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Book Description

17 Oct 2006

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.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Nan A. Talese (17 Oct 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385509634
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385509633
  • Product Dimensions: 21.3 x 14.7 x 3.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 2,554,462 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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""The Ruby in Her Navel" is captivating, sensuous, and immensely moving. It helps us understand our own contemporary world; a rare achievement. This is Barry Unsworth, the master of resonant historical fiction, on top form."--Jim Crace "Barry Unsworth brilliantly peoples one of the most dazzling and least known chapters of European history; I loved this book."--John Julius Norwich "Unsworth's subtle prose conjures up an authentically realized medieval world in which one's nationality and religion overshadow everything, and peace is only an illusion. The twisting plotline, heavy with foreshadowing, conceals as much as it reveals in this heartrending tale, which can be read either as an exceptional historical novel or a modern parable on the dangers of blind patriotism.""--Booklist" ""The Ruby in Her Navel" is a richly imagined novel of the Middle Ages, filled with questions of race, God, and fidelity, from the Booker Prize-winning Unsworth...Unsworth's luscious history is ripe territory for a dialogue on the ever-present struggle against intolerance, a seemingly inevitable human frailty."--"Kirkus Reviews" "Barry Unsworth is one of the three most important British novelists at work today."--Richard Eder, "The New York Times" "Unsworth's writing is unrivaled...His novels are close to perfect in an imperfect literary world."--Ruth Rendell "As with the novels of Brian Moore or the poetry of Larkin, there's very little the reviewer needs to say about Unsworth's fiction, except: read it."--David Sexton, "The Spectator" --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

About the Author

Barry Unsworth was born in 1930 in a mining village in Durham. He has spent a number of years in the Eastern Mediterranean area, has taught English in Athens and Istanbul, and now lives in Italy. He is the author of many novels, including Pascali's Island, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1980 and has been filmed; Stone Virgin (1985); Sacred Hunger, which was joint winner of the 1992 Booker Prize; Morality Play, which was shortlisted for the 1995 Booker Prize; After Hannibal, Losing Nelson and The Songs of the Kings. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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First Sentence
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. Read the first page
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant writing - wonderfully evocative 12 Mar 2007
Unsworth's writing oozes a richness and quality which is second to none. Indeed the greatest success of "The Ruby in Her Navel" is in the way it immerses the reader into the world of Thurstan, its narrator. Unsworth manages to evoke the sights, sounds, smells and even tastes of the twelfth-century Mediterranean in remarkable detail, from the court of King Roger in Palermo and the gardens at Favara to the pilgrim-filled streets of the town of Bari. The peculiarities of Sicily as a medieval kingdom, with its fusion of Christian and Islamic cultures, are brought out in full, and the tensions between the two communities, and between Thurstan and his mentor Yusuf, become increasingly clear as the story progresses.

Both the dialogue and the descriptive language are beautifully crafted, and Unsworth expertly draws out Thurstan's emotions in a way which is easy for the reader to identify with. The feelings which accompany his every success and failure, his loves, losses and inner conflicts, are ones which we have all experienced and have a very genuine quality about them. It is easy to feel sympathetic towards the character as he attempts to find his way in what proves to be a turbulent and difficult world,

If there is one shortcoming of this book, it is its length. It takes until about 200 pages into the book until it really starts to pick up the pace and the web of intrigue which has been gradually building around Thurstan starts to become apparent. This is unfortunate, because it means that the real action is compressed into the final 100 pages. As a result, the resolution too feels a little too neat and hurried. All the right elements are there - secret plots, shadowy enemies, simmering cultural tensions - it is just that they could be explored further.

Nevertheless, this is a very good book and easily recommended on the strength of Unsworth's characterisation, his marvellously detailled settings, and the poetic quality of his writing.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Almost great; definitely excellent 21 Feb 2007
By Rgh1066
Booker Prize winner Barry Unsworth's latest novel is set in mid-twelfth century Sicily in and around the court of King Roger and in the wake of the disastrous (at least from the contemporary Christian point of view) Second Crusade.

It is a book in which intrigue and subterfuge - chiefly between Christians and Moslems jockeying for positions of power, are never far away, but it is also a love story enmeshed in deception and the nave delusions of the protagonist, Thurston Beauchamp, about the childhood sweetheart he once cherished. This Alicia has grown to be Lady Alicia, recently widowed, alluring but mysterious and ultimately treacherous.

Simultaneously, Beauchamp finds himself drawn to the enigmatic and bewitchingly beautiful Anatolian dancer known as Nesrin. The battle in his soul between the two women who have captivated him mirrors the much more bloody battles being fought between the various factions represented in Palermo - both inter-religious and inter-denominational.

Brilliantly researched, The Ruby in Her Navel provides the reader with a fascinating insight into how little may have changed between the leaders of the Christian and Moslem communities across the centuries to the present day. However, the book is not Unsworth's greatest work and is damaged by plot contrivances which serve to connect strands of the story without necessarily convincing the reader.

Beauchamp's being duped by the simplest of confidence tricks perhaps falls into this category. So too does the all-too-convenient meeting between Beauchamp and the knight who provides the means by which he eventually finds his destiny.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Famous for his strong historical novels containing well developed themes, Barry Unsworth here focuses on life in 1149 in Palermo, Sicily. Power struggles between 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, a woman with whom he was once in love. Now a widow of considerable wealth, Lady Alicia returns Thurstan's love.

Unsworth's inclusion of fine details of twelfth century life give vibrancy to his story.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Great item
Published 7 days ago by H. Newman
5.0 out of 5 stars All roads lead to and from Sicily
History is accessible only to the extent that it has clear entrances and exits. You can spend years of frustration being haunted by an incomplete understanding of Guelph and... Read more
Published 4 months ago by Milo di Thernan
5.0 out of 5 stars The Ruby in her Navel
Barry Unsworth is a joy to read. His writing is lyrical, sensitive, intelligent and perceptive.

This is a great story, set in medieval Sicily... Read more
Published 9 months ago by Penny Jones
5.0 out of 5 stars The Ruby In Her Navel by Barry Unsworth
An unputdownable mystery set in the Norman court of Sicily at a time when Christians, Jews and Muslims were able to work together....until powerful forces decide otherwise. Read more
Published 17 months ago by Martin Daly
4.0 out of 5 stars An excellent historical novel set in Norman Sicily
A most enjoyable read using a wide historical and geographical range, very captivating storyline; well written - it is refreshing to read grammatically correct English and a wide... Read more
Published 24 months ago by caroline nobile
5.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful, haunting novel
This really is a super read. The author meticulously builds the story over the 1st 200 pages. At times I found myself feeling that although the writing was always rich and... Read more
Published on 23 Mar 2012 by Peter Sandham
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent and intelligent historical tale
This novel is set in twelfth century Sicily which is ruled by a Catholic king but the inhabitants include Muslims, Jews and Byzantine Christians. Read more
Published on 10 April 2009 by Wynne Kelly
5.0 out of 5 stars An exciting historical fiction
Barry Unsworth is a writer from the North of England whose historical novels often have much to say about contemporary society and the values and prejudices of our world. Read more
Published on 8 Feb 2009 by b
5.0 out of 5 stars Impeccable historical fiction
"The ruby in her navel" is a delight to read! It pleased and impressed me as no other historical novel has done in a very long time, and many are the reasons why. Read more
Published on 14 Feb 2008 by Didier
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent
Unsworth is a much underrated writer. Yes it's historical fiction - historic romance even - but this is Patrick O'Brian rather than Georgette Heyer. Read more
Published on 4 Feb 2008 by Graham R. Hill
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