THE RUBY IN HER NAVEL by Barry Unsworth (Review)

Sicily, 1149

Christians? You put yourself on a level with them, you who are of Christian birth? You call them Christians, these filthy palace Saracens that claim to be converted to our faith and secretly continue to practise their own?’
‘I have seen no evidence of this,’ I said, but he did not hear me or showed no sign of doing so.
‘Once a Saracen, always a Saracen, it is in their blood,’ he said. His eyes had a staring look now, that famished smile had gone, and with it all pretence of benevolent interest in me. He leaned forward across the table, bringing his face close to mine. ‘It is in their corrupted blood,’ he said, ‘and they will corrupt our blood with it if we allow them. […] Tell me, Thurstan, what does Christendom mean to you?’
‘It is the term we use for those regions where our Roman faith is predominant.’
‘That is all it signifies to you? This great spread of our faith no more than a matter of geography? I will tell you what Christendom is. Christendom is the universal Christian Church, the universal Christian society. Christendom is a mighty host that is destined to bring the world under its sway.’

An unusual but fascinating setting: the court of the Norman King Roger of Sicily. Following the failure of the great army of the Second Crusade at Damascus, Sicily – and the whole of southern Italy and the eastern Mediterranean – seethes with unrest. Palermo, with its Muslims and Jews, its Byzantine Christians and its Roman Christians, seems a kind of melting-pot, symbolic of the rest of the region. King Roger, who has sworn to maintain equality between the races and creeds, is visibly failing to do so as his Norman courtiers seize more and more power and property for themselves at the expense of the rest.

In the middle of all this, a young Anglo-Norman called Thurstan Beauchamp works under a Muslim, Yusuf, the minister responsible for the Diwan al-tahqiq al-ma’mur, the Diwan of Control (or Diwan of Secrets) – and dreams of the knighthood and the life that should have been his, would have been his if his father had not entered a Cistercian monastery and given all his lands and property to the Cistercian Order, thereby leaving his son unable to pursue his training. Now, under Yusuf, Thurstan is officially responsible for recruiting and organising entertainers (dancers, singers) for the royal court, but in fact much of his work is on the secret side, carrying out confidential missions for Yusuf.

All this comes together as he sets out for Bari (a port on the east coast of Italy) to meet a Serbian emissary and deliver a message, but, while there, he falls under the spell of a penniless gypsy dancer, Nesrin, (who, after the start given to her by Thurstan in Palermo, becomes famous throughout the courts of Europe – she’s the one who, later, has a ruby in her navel “that glowed as she danced”). And then, quite by chance, he meets his childhood sweetheart, Lady Alicia, now a young widow and recently returned from Jerusalem.

A love story, yes. But Thurstan has already been offered a substantial bribe if he will accuse Yusuf of attempting to make him a convert to Islam, and thus bring about Yusuf’s downfall. He, of course, refused. But when Alicia is taken prisoner, and her release – her very life – depends on Thurstan bearing false witness against Yusuf, his long-time friend and mentor – what is he to do? Is honour the most important thing for him? And the consolation of Nesrin the dancer? Or should he accept the knighthood and land he is offered, and the hand of Alicia?

A marvellous story, and beautifully written, as one would expect from Barry Unsworth, thrice shortlisted for the Booker Prize and once the winner. But don’t expect another Morality Play: Barry Unsworth is not one to repeat himself, and this book, its setting and its hero are as different as A Tale of Two Cities is from Hard Times.

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