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. Wonderful, intimate scenes--Thurstan's visit to the king's church in Palermo to observe the stunning mosaic work being created by Byzantine craftsmen, for example--add color and excitement to his picture of mid-twelfth century life. The formal, "archaistic" language befits the period, and the continuing imagery of light and shadow emphasizes the ethnic and cultural contrasts among the competing ethnic groups and the conflicts within Thurstan's soul.
Though Unsworth tells a fascinating story, full of excitement, he telegraphs much of the action through obvious foreshadowing throughout. Thurstan's naivete, which makes him a sympathetic "hero" and provides excuses for some of his blunders, is a bit unrealistic, however, considering his high level of responsibility within the king's court. More complex than some of Unsworth's other recent novels, The Ruby in Her Navel is filled with vibrant detail within a fascinating historical context, however, and its emphasis on Thurstan's political and romantic coming-of-age will make it popular with lovers of historical novels with well-developed themes and images. Mary Whipple