Although Barry Unsworth’s latest novel might in some sense be about the relationship between Islam and Christianity, other less trendy themes are much more effectively addressed. Besides, The Ruby in Her Navel is told by a fictional character so convincing in his strengths and weaknesses that all considerations of politics, religion, history and morality are subordinate to his enormous and realistic charm. So the reader would do well not to graft modern political notions on to this beautifully constructed historical romance, and instead enjoy it for the simple elegance of its story.
The narrator, Thurstan Beauchamp, is a young Norman working at the court of the tolerant 12th-century King of Sicily, Roger II. Thurstan is vain, supercilious and often narrow-minded, but also emotionally sensitive. He faces various choices: between the confusions inherent in racial and religious tolerance and the comfortable certainties of racism and conservative Christianity; between absolutes like King and God and the moral quagmire of his real self; between the conventions of his upbringing and the new reality of his life in Sicily. These choices are eventually and carefully distilled into his relationships with two women — Lady Alicia, his childhood sweetheart, and Nesrin, a wild and sensuous belly-dancer from the East.
Thurstan is the purveyor of spectacles in the Diwan of Control, an office run by a Muslim favoured by King Roger. Against the backdrop of the Second Crusade, Roger’s religious pluralism is threatened by a growing band of conservative Normans insulted by the prevalence of Muslims and Jews in the high offices of Sicily. Thurstan is caught between various political tides, and eventually left at the mercy of historical events.
Unsworth’s characterisation of Thurstan is a tour de force. It is very difficult to narrate a story in the voice of a deeply flawed and often unlikeable man, but Unsworth succeeds by investing Thurstan with an endearing awareness of his failures. We care what happens to him despite his being a fool and a peacock, because he knows it and he regrets it. Thurstan also has a 12th- century intellect, and Unsworth’s triumph is to allow us to excuse his outdated ideas not just out of respect for the differences of the age, but on modern terms as well.
When Thurstan is troubled by the intellectual and social freedom of his Byzantine friend Demetrius, who requires no king and no creed to find fulfilment in life, many who fear bohemian ways will be troubled as well. The purity of Thurstan’s lust for Nesrin strikes him as almost divine, and his subsequent befuddlement rings true even now. Unsworth is a novelist first and a historian second. His themes are universal, and their historical setting subtly enhances our understanding of them.
Palermo in the 12th century is littered with different races and creeds, and there is no escaping the fact that Unsworth intends us to draw parallels between mediaeval Sicily and modern, tolerant Western cities. But thankfully the novel’s power lies much more in careful characterisation and narrative elegance than in smart political analogies whose cleverness belongs in historical and biographical works, not in fiction. The breadth of Unsworth’s imagination, combined with his experience as a storyteller, makes The Ruby in Her Navel deserving of its place on the Booker longlist and unlucky not to be on the shortlist.