Barry Unsworth has written about topics as varied as the Atlantic slave trade, theater in 14th-century Britain and politics during the Trojan War. In each case, he highlights the foibles, crimes and moral dilemmas of the past. Strange thing is -- and it's one of Unsworth's strengths -- those foibles, crimes and moral dilemmas seem a lot like what we're up to in the present moment. He has a knack for making the past seem authentic in its historical detail while injecting his tales with lessons relevant to our contemporary struggles. That's the case once again in The Ruby in Her Navel.
The backdrop is the complex world of 12th-century Sicily. The Norman King Roger oversees a multicultural society in which Christian, Muslim, Jew, Latin and Greek coexist in an uneasy truce. The air daily fills with Muslim calls to prayer and the tolling of monastery bells. The royal coffers are full. The populace should be pleased, but instead this shared prosperity and peace rub people the wrong way. It doesn't seem that anybody -- Christians or Muslims especially -- expects this experiment to succeed.
Thurstan Beauchamp, the Christian son of a Norman knight, works under a Muslim Arab in charge of the king's finance office. He acquires herons for the king's falcons to hunt, delivers messages, secures entertainers, hands out bribes and pays for assassins. But his real focus is on his own quest for success and love. He's out to win the hand of his childhood sweetheart, Alicia, and hopes to gain a knighthood in the bargain. He's also carnally drawn to a young dancer, Nesrin, who gives the book its title.
With his attention thus aroused and divided, he stumbles his way into -- and plays a part in -- a murderous plot that puts his mentor's and his king's lives in danger. One of them lives to the end. One of them doesn't.
Intrigue, shadowy meetings, surprise encounters, covert missions, all keep the plot moving forward quickly. It's a good thing, too, because Thurstan himself is not a particularly engaging narrator. He is complex, to be sure, but he's hard to like: vain, self-centered and plagued by unfulfilled ambition. He chafes against the fact that he has been denied what he sees as his rightful station in life. He is so focused on advancement and so blind to the machinations of those around him that he becomes a pawn, used again and again for objectives he claims to find odious. Everybody -- even his beloved Alicia -- takes advantage of him. In a particularly low moment, he's asked to betray a friend for his own gain; he doesn't respond commendably.
The novel's strongest suit is that the convoluted plot lends suspense right up to the final pages. Thurstan manages to shake off his self-pity long enough to grapple with the situation he helped create. The climactic scene has a decidedly cinematic, thriller-like feel to it, and it's refreshing to finally see Thurstan taking action.
Like the best historical fiction writers, Unsworth tells his story while also fleshing out the backdrop with details that ground us in the moment and make it tangibly real. He makes his characters' individual experiences representative of larger concerns. Near the end of the book, Nesrin, speaking imperfect Greek, creates a metaphor to explain Thurstan's central flaw: "You make a shape that is not true," she says, "and you keep to that shape and do not see it is the wrong one. . . . You keep to it, nothing can change you." With this, Nesrin has understood things better than any of the nobles and knights and priests in the pages of this book.
It is questionable whether Thurstan will truly break with his nature, but that's not the point. Through Nesrin, the author may well be speaking of the culture that Thurstan represents. It was not only Thurstan who made shapes -- philosophies, political theories, religious doctrines -- that are not true. Western societies have done the same. We still struggle to maintain and expand our cultural supremacy with wishfully shaped notions, and Unsworth seems to be giving Nesrin words intended as a warning for our modern ears. "Do you not see?" she says. "If we do not break the bad shape, it will break us."Reviewed by David Anthony Durham
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