I should have loved this book. The Ruby in her Navel is subtitled “A novel of love and intrigue set in the 12th century”, it has everything I typically would find terrific in a book: a fabulous historical setting (Sicily in the middle ages) that includes the clash of Islam and Christianity; political intrigue as the new Norman King of Sicily begins to impose himself on the country; a mystery story; a love affair; and a main character who has reached his position (a senior official in the ministry of finance in charge of blackmail and bribes) through hard work and accomplishments rather than birthright. Like many of the historical fiction novels I have reviewed favorably, this one has all the elements of success.
I think Unsworth had a great idea to begin with…..in medieval Sicily, where the Normans (Franks) has just ousted the Saracens (Muslims) from leadership, the wise King utilizes the superior talents organization/bureaucracy of the incumbent Muslim functionaries side-by-side with the Christian knights and court functionaries brought to the island after victory. There is an ongoing power struggle of culture, religion, and ambition. The Muslims are more learned, more sophisticated, more attuned to court intrigue (and a whole lot cleaner, too). The Christians are surprise victors and zealots. Add to the mix some good interpersonal conflicts, a bit of romance, a little good sex writing while staying true to the history and the book (as Marlon Brando, as Terry Malloy in On The Waterfront says) “coulda been a contender”.
Alas, despite all of its environmental advantages, Barry Unsworth (a Booker Prize winner for an earlier novel) manages to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory with an unsophisticated plot, plodding prose, and paper thin characterizations. The context is typically delivered by the musings of the main character, Thurstan Beauchamp, the son of a Norman Christian knight, who by all rights should be quicker, smarter, and cleverer than he ever presents himself to be. The mystery evolves so slowly that glacial movement would seem a sprightly pace and the denouement (while admittedly an interesting twist) comes about with such shocking suddenness (and no foreshadowing) that I felt a bit cheated. One character that should have been fascinating is Thurstan’s boss in the Ministry of Finance, a sophisticated, erudite, learned Muslim named Yusuf who is instead transformed into an unbelievable oracle who quotes just the right passage of Koran at just the right time. The character reminded me of Gurney Halleck in the fabulous sci-fi novel, Dune of whom it was said would seem naked without the appropriate quote.
And, in mitten drinnen, Unsworth is just not a mystery writer. The few twists and turns that do show up seem to appear out of thin air as magic tricks, not as developed themes in a plot.
I would skip this one.