The Ruby In Her Navel

The Ruby In Her Navel
by Barry Unsworth
2006 / 399 pages
rating 9.5

In the 12th century Sicily was Christianized by the Norman King Roger II.  He tried to get the Normans, Byzantines, Greeks, Muslims, and Jews to live together in relative harmony but …

Into this milieu comes our hero,  Thurstan Beauchamp, the Christian son of a Norman knight,  who works as purveyor and blackmail/briber/spy for Yusef,  a Muslim Arab of the King’s inner circle.  The King is really trying to put together a kingdom of mixed heritage, race, religion and so on but underneath a surface architectural and governmental mixing,  the old fears and animosities continue to run.  Some of the worst relations are between the Latin Christians and the Byzantine Christians.

Thurstan travels and sends some unusual dancers back to the king.  He also goes to Biro, the site of the relics of St. Nicholas.  He goes to deal with a rebel leader and as he leaves he meets his childhood sweetheart.

Thurstan is not a likable guy,  he is a hypocrite and justifies all his actions – good or bad. Part of his problem is that his father, who was a fairly wealthy man,  gave his money to the Church and entered a monastery.   And in keeping with the themes,  what is visible and what is not,  what is truth,  what is chaste,   there’s a very real difference between the groups and people,  what they expect, demand, coerce, bribe, hide, tell, show, etc. – on the other hand,  they all want equal treatment (except those in power).

The fairly heavy historical element is treated with respect and, as far as I know, honesty – although I did think the Church of San Giovanni Degli Eremiti in Palermo a bit exaggerated –  and it would have been for the purposes of the story to show how even-handed King Roger was trying to be.

And in the middle of all this Thurstan finds himself drawn to two women,  one a childhood sweetheart, of noble Christian birth, now a wealthy widow,  the other a lowly born fiery Muslim belly-dancer from the mountains.  In the middle is his girl in Palermo- Sara.

The basic plot element is a conspiracy story intertwined with a love triangle which I kind of think may be metaphorical.  But, as John Julius Norwich said in his review in the Guardian,  “…   its real strength lies in the power of the author’s historical imagination.”the power of the author’s historical imagination.

I’m about 2/3rds done – great story – extraordinarily well developed setting,  lots of history,  some philosophy and religion,  good love triangle.  The protagonist is quite complex –  romantic but corrupt.  The thing is I think the love triangle is going to reflect the secular and religious squabbling.   There’s a serious growing suspense developed through corruption,  suspicion and  intrigue.


I found these questions at Norton Books  and answered them.

• When Thurstan meets Spaventa in Potenza, the assassin tells him that “it is only in ignorance of our fellow man that we can love him.” How do Spaventa’s words resonate throughout the rest of the story? And why is it important that an assassin—a character so thoroughly evil—point out the folly of ignorance to Thurstan?

The better Thurston knows any of these characters the more he sees of their greed, their disloyalty (or loyalty to the other side),  their failing to live up to his knightly creed.  Spaventa knows all this – he’s seen the really bad side of good people.  Thurston has yet to know that the twists of loyalty can be perverted.


• What is the role of sin in the world Unsworth has created? How does it guide Thurstan’s actions, and what is the significance of Nesrin’s belief in a world without sin?

It would seem that to some, sin is pretty relative in Unsworth’s world and based on personal advancement or greed.    But to others of higher mind perhaps,  it’s any violation of a certain set of religious or ethnic beliefs and leaders  – absolute.   The outcome is that an absolute creed ends up in conflict within itself –  which is more important,  loyalty to a woman or to a great leader?  Even without the duress, that would be a toughie for Thurston who tries so hard to be a hero.    In the end,  in Nesrin’s view,   Thurston is guilty of a mistake and a wrong deed,  but he has not “sinned.”    Even if Thurston’s motives were not pure,  that is still only a mistake,  not a “sin.”


• Throughout The Ruby in Her Navel, King Roger is obscured by light. Thurstan, his loyal servant, has never seen the King’s face. Why, when Thurstan finally sees the King’s visage, does his sight fail him? How does this moment change Thurstan? And why did he not see the King as mortal before?

Thurston is blinded by his visions from ideals of knightly purity.  He is a knight, or wants to be, and his leader must be of the highest order, second only to God himself.  To see the King as human is to defile him in some way –  When he does,  his sight fails him – he can’t see Roger that way yet.  When he does he realizes that all humans are mortal – the King is capable of error and foolishness and duplicity as well as kindness and virtue.


• At one point, Yusuf quotes the Koran to Thurstan: “But that mankind would become one people we would have given those who denied merciful God silver roofs for their houses and stairways to mount them.” What does this verse say about religious tensions rife in twelfth-century Sicily and about the bloody Crusades? What is Yusuf trying to tell Thurstan about the dangers of belief?

It would have looked like the God deniers were rewarded.  That cannot be in man’s mind so he who is right wins and  gets the goodies.  If religious beliefs are taken too far,  then there is suffering for anyone who does not agree.  It is rough for a state as enmeshed in religious beliefs as Sicily at the time to serve two masters – (in a manner of speaking).  In the minds of the religious some are unjustly given the goodies.


• What are Thurstan’s personal insecurities? And how do they make him the perfect prey for Abbot Alboino, Bertrand of Bonneval, and Lady Alicia’s trap? What did you think of Thurstan? Where you able to forgive him his weaknesses by the end of the story?

Thurston was not made a knight and wants very badly to be one – he wants to live up to the values of the knighthood. This is pride.  And he falls short of these values mostly because of women – Alicia for the most part because she’s wound up with his pried,  but also due to Nesrin because he feels a bit guilty about her.   Yup – I went through various feelings about Thurston, first I felt that he was a good guy,  then when he seemed to be almost too good I wondered about his reliability – was he hiding something?  Then I realized how naive he was and felt a bit sorry for him, caught in his trap.   Then when he redeemed himself by killing Savarin he seemed to be a good guy again but not until Nesrin’s reappearance and their decision to just leave,  with him forsaking his knighthood (kind of) did I really forgive him.


• With the exception of Yusuf, all of Unsworth’s characters—even King Roger—seem very human in their desires, motivations, and impulses. Why does Yusuf seem above this? What does he symbolize?

Yusuf tried to unite the people of various ethnicities and religions in one community.  He’s generally open and loving and accepting but he knows there’s evil in the world and he has awareness and  suspicions as much as anyone.  Yusef is never in the company of women,  never tempted by the gold or riches – his motives seem more pure than any others.   I suppose he represents a loving father?


• After reading the memoirs of Abbot Guibert of Nogent, Thurstan remarks, “Strange it seemed to me that a man’s name would endure only for one cut with a sword when those whose lives are full of good works lie nameless and forgotten below ground.” How does this statement show Thurstan’s need for recognition and remembrance? Who are the good and forgotten men in this story? Is the admiration Thurstan expresses for them in this remark reflected in his actions toward them?

Men who do virtually nothing but live get the recognition – men who die for their beliefs are dead and forgotten?  Yes,  I think his admiration is shown in his treatment of Stephanos for one.  Maybe others I can’t remember.


• What are the roles of light and shadow in this story? How do they tie into the roles of trust and suspicion? And does Thurstan’s story ultimately tell us that suspicion should be valued over trust and love?

Light is good but it can deceive when it is too much or if it is reflected or produced from .   Dark is generally not good.  Yusef tended to be in the light,  Nesrin was always in the light.  Alicia tended to be in the shadows.  Savarin was a man of the dark (for the most part – even when he was behind the curtains on the scaffold at morning time).    King Roger was mostly in the light but much of it was reflected.  The Royal Chapel was full of reflected light and deep shadows.   The gardens at Favara had a lot of darkness and reflections from turning mirrors .  Thurston works quite a lot in the shadows with people he has to bribe.  Thurston loved the light Nesrin brought to his room at the end.


• The racial and religious tensions of the Sicilian melting pot under King Roger’s rule resonate strongly in today’s world. Are the motives of Abbot Alboino, Bertrand of Bonneval, Atenulf the Lombard, Gerbert, Wilfred, and King Roger recognizable in today’s leaders? And does Thurstan’s ignorance make him complicit in their schemes or does it exonerate him? Is it enough that Thurstan aspires to be good? What do Thurstan’s actions and motives say about the role of the courtier in the Middle Ages and about the role of a citizen in today’s society?

Ha!   Thurston’s ignorance mitigates judgement against him somewhat but doesn’t completely exonerate him.  He signed that paper knowing what it said,  knowing what it would do.   Yes,  I think Thurston aspires to be good,  but there are limits – and his “goodness” was used in a conspiracy against Yusef … OR!  …   Was it his pride which was used –  his desire for the knighthood which Alicia had promised?  –  I changed my mind twice writing out this answer.   (sheesh!  – grin.)

Btw,  I personally think Obama is similar to the very naive Thurston wanting to bring peace and harmony to the nation and the world,  but not seeing that there are people who are more devoted to their personal power than to any kind of settlement in general. And I think Obama’s pride got the better of him when he tried to accommodate a bit too much. At the moment he’s Thurston but if he loses in November he will be Yusuf.

I don’t think you can go much further than this because the basis of the bigger power struggles in the book (Latin Christians,  Byzantine Christians,  Jews,  Muslims,  2nd Crusade,  Roger II in Sicily)  are historical and not really open to useful metaphor.


• Nesrin’s story is inextricably tied to that of Thurstan, but for most of the book she remains in the background—an object of Thurstan’s lust who causes him shame and feelings of debasement. But at the end of the story, it is Nesrin who teaches Thurstan to see the world differently, by saying, “You make a shape that is not true and you keep to that shape and do not see it is the wrong one.” What is the significance of Nesrin’s statement? And why is it important that Nesrin—a landless, title-less gypsy—be the one to impart this message to Thurstan?

That was such a powerful scene – omg.  And it resonated back to when Yusuf saw a triangle but Thurston saw a circle.  Thurston was not aware of the dangers of the points on a circle.  Nesrin has  provided yet another shape. Nesrin can do this – provide another shape – because she is not part of the power-struggles,  she is landless, title-less,  owes nothing to anyone –  and she’s none of the above when it comes to religion.



whew!   🙂


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