Barry Unsworth’s The Ruby in Her Navel: A Novel truly is a novel of love and intrigue as the dust jacket promises. The book is an erudite historical mystery driven by Unsworth’s superb story-telling skills. It is quite simply one of the very best books I've read in years.
The tale is set in 12th century Sicily during the rule of the Norman kings (said rule was certainly news to me). The Norman King Roger II uses Muslims in some high offices and our heroic protagonist Thurstan works for one of the most highly placed Muslims, Yusuf, ‘Lord of the Diwan of Control' (chief financial office). In 12th-century Palermo, all races and creeds lived and worked in relative harmony and peace. But the Second Crusade has just crashed and there are those who want to end the Muslim influence. (The Second Crusade's chief champion, Bernard of Clairvaux - the guy who nearly crushed Abelard of Heloise and Abelard - was, shall we say unrepentant in the wake of the Crusade's failure.)
The failure of the Crusade also returns to Sicily Lady Alicia, the woman whom Thurstan loved in his early years. Thurstan’s expectations of becoming a knight and Alicia becoming his Lady had been demolished years earlier when his father suddenly gave his land to the Church. Now suddenly she is back and rekindles an improbable love. Alicia, however, is not the most remarkable woman in Unsworth’s tale; that special place is reserved for Nesrin, the dancer with the ruby in her navel.
Unsworth delivers layers within layers of intrigue. I was got off guard by the coup de grace – even though after it happened I realized it should have been obvious. The Ruby in Her Navel is historical fiction raised to its pinnacle. Highest recommendation.
Interview with Unsworth: http://www.kwls.org/lit/kwls_blog/2008/06/intensity_of_ilusiona_conversa.cfm
Another Second Crusade link: http://timelines.com/topics/second-crusade
Another H & A link: http://classiclit.about.com/cs/articles/a/aa_abelard.htm
and one more: http://www.abelardandheloise.com/Story.html