The Ruby in Her Navel
by Barry Unsworth
Reviewed by Margaret Donsbach
The title of The Ruby in Her Navel is misleading, as the novel is less a story of love or seduction than a complex puzzle constructed around the political tensions in twelfth century Sicily. Thurstan Beauchamp works in the Diwan al-tahqiq al-ma' mur, a ministry devoted to finance and espionage in the government of King Roger II. Like the king, Thurstan is a Christian Norman. His boss, Yusuf, is a Muslim Saracen. Thurstan admires the intelligent, sophisticated Yusuf, who treats him with the affection of a mentor for an earnest but slightly backward protégé.
Sicily had been an Islamic state in the eleventh century, but an influx of Normans changed the balance of power. By 1091, Sicily was entirely in the control of Normans, who nevertheless respected Arabic customs and did not exclude Arabs from government service. King Roger II continued this policy when he united all of Sicily and Norman Southern Italy under his rule. By the middle of the twelfth century, when The Ruby in Her Navel is set, the policy was eroding and controversial. The Catholic Church was not happy. Nor were Sicilian Arabs.
Thurstan, whose admiration of King Roger verges on worship, remains an innocent in his lack of curiosity about the tensions surrounding him. He uses a metaphor to justify the unsavory nature of his ministry's work: "The King was rowed on a silver barge with silver banners; he was shining in silver and so were the oars that rowed him. This shining was reflected on the water so that it dazzled the eyes and made the figure of the King difficult to gaze upon. But the silver shone so brilliantly by virtue of the dark water; below the surface were creatures who stalked and feasted and fought and maintained themselves, some by force and some by cunning, and in doing so they maintained that shining world above them and kept the King's barge afloat."
It is a foreshadowing of disillusion. (2006, 399 pages)
More about The Ruby in Her Navel from Powell's Books
Other novels set in medieval Sicily:
Great Maria by Cecelia Holland, set in the eleventh century. Review
For more, see the article Historical Novels Set in Medieval Sicily
Nonfiction about twelfth century Sicily:
Roger II of Sicily: A Ruler Between East and West by Hubert Houben. More info
Arabic Administration in Norman Sicily: The Royal Diwan by Jeremy Johns. More info
The Norman Kingdom of Sicily by Donald Matthew. More info
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