Barry Unsworth’s THE RUBY IN HER NAVEL

Barry Unsworth’s THE RUBY IN HER NAVEL is a gem of a novel, hidden behind the thicket of its unpromising beginning.

Set in Sicily in the 1100s during the reign of Roger I of Sicily, we follow the story of a young man named (somewhat improbably in my opinion) Thurstan Beauchamp, who travels through the world as a purveyor of the King’s pleasures and shows. Naturally, there is more to this innocent-seeming job than meets the eye. Of course, Thurstan is really a spy, intent on finding out about dissension against the King both within his court and outside it.

I am not a fan of narrative summary, so writers who tend to use that method of telling their stories wear thin on me. And there were times in this novel, when it lagged. But the biggest problem (apart from the dreadful cover, and the misleading, un-poetic title) was the beginning.

“To begin a story one must choose a time when the door swings wide, and this came for me on a day late in April 1149.”

What a wonderful first line. Except that it is not the first line of the novel. We do not meet it until page 2, after a rambling beginning about a dancing girl.

“He asked me quite openly, rather carelessly, as if it were an afterthought—” [And so on for a whole paragraph.]

Here we have a quasi-hook. But it is so shrouded in secrecy, that we do not know what it is.

The majlis itself has stayed in my memory because it was enlivened by a quarrel.

Information dump that takes a whole paragraph.

It was the eunuch Martin, a palace Saracen, who brought on the quarrel.

Another information dump.Who cares about Martin? What about Thurstan, the narrator who was introduced to us on the page before? And why is Unsworth taking forever to get to the point?

And so on. I think most people will understand why I nearly threw the book across the floor at this point. Five stars for beguiling characters in the shape of Thurstan and Nesrin, and for a clever plot twist at the end. One star for an amateurish beginning, making this three stars.

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