Five Stars for this Gem

0385509634.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_♫ The Ruby in Her Navel
by Barry Unsworth ★★★★★
Source: Audible
Edition: AudioGO (2007), Unabridged MP3, 12h22
Awards & Distinctions:
Booker Prize Longlist (2006)
Original publication date: 2006

This book by the fine historical novelist Barry Unsworth is set in 1149 Palermo, Sicily, where power struggles between East and West have left King Roger hard pressed to maintain his throne. Both the Pope and the Bishop of Rome refuse to recognize his rule, and Conrad Hohenstaufen (ruler of the West) and Manuel Comnenus (ruler of the East) are threatening to invade Sicily to secure their powers. Palermo has always been tolerant to various ethnic communities, but a Christian group is making false accusations against Muslims, Jews, and other “outsiders” to take over power.

Thurstan Beauchamp narrates this story. He is a young man still, the son of a Norman knight and a Saxon mother. He works in the Diwan of Control, the central financial office at the palace, where his employer is Yusuf Ibn Mansur, a Muslim man with political savvy and of unimpeachable honesty who is willing to help Thurstan become influential if he can avoid falling into one of the dangerous political games the various factions are playing against each other. Traveling throughout Europe as “Purveyor of Pleasures and Shows”, Thurstan finds a group of five Yazidis, including Nesrin, a belly dancer with uncommon talent, and immediately hires them to come to Palermo to perform for the king. He is drawn to Nesrin’s great beauty and allure, but things take yet another turn when he meets again with the Lady Alicia on the same trip, once his great love when he was still a boy and she then just a girl also. Now she has returned from the land of Jerusalem as a widow of considerable wealth and power, and she seems just as taken with Thurstan as he still is with her, when he finds his love for her has not abated over the years.

We learn early on in the novel that Thurstan’s most cherished dream has been to become a knight and fight in the crusades, as his father has done before him, though this opportunity was taken away from him just when it seemed about to be realised. Now with Lady Alicia’s return on the scene and the considerable influence of her relations, many opportunities beckon. The novel builds up at a moderate pace, all the while filled with period details which inform us about aspects of daily life in 12th century Palermo. Thurstan, narrating in the first person from the vantage point of a period after the events have taken place, is a personable main character, whom we cannot help but empathise with, though he makes many grave gaffes and mistakes, and much as his naïvety and youth show he has yet much to learn and ought to know better, we see the events though his eyes before he had gained the advantage of hindsight, so that the reader is offered only glimpses of the whole, until a complex mystery is revealed.

A jewel of a book which I can’t wait to reread to pick up on all the fine intricate details I may have missed upon first reading; I also loved Andrew Sachs’ narration in this audio version; a well-earned five stars for this gem, which only makes me want to read yet more of Unsworth’s wonderful prose. Lucky for me, I still have his 1992 Booker Prize winner Sacred Hunger and it’s follow-up, The Quality of Mercy, as well as The Songs of the Kings, all historical fiction novels also, as well as the travel memoir Crete to look forward to in my vast personal reading and listening library. It’s not unlikely I may end up trying to get hold of everything Unsworth has written in his long and fruitful career, during which he published a total of 17 novels, and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize three times.

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The Age of Innocence

e717b98288f5958597637656651444341587343The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard
AudioGO (2011), Unabridged MP3, 16h55
Narrated by Jill Balcon

Finished listening to The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard last night. This is the first book of the Cazalet Chronicles, a family saga about the Cazalet family clan living very comfortably thanks to a family business—this prompting me to think of them henceforward as another set of Forsytes (see The Man of Property by John Galsworthy), another British family clan living comfortably from the fruit of their trade. It starts in the late 1930s while Europe is on the brink of WWII. Most of the actions takes place during two consecutive summer family vacations, when the whole clan are gathered at their Sussex family home. There are three generations of Cazalets, with spouses and their families plus the servants and various employees to keep track of, and while I usually have quite a bit of trouble remembering who is who when there are more than a handful of characters, this was more or less easily done here, as each of the characters is very well drawn and has a unique individual story.

The children are busy at their games and worries; about going back to school and attendant bullying for the boys, while the girls are dreaming up their future career options given the minimal education they are offered; acting, being a nun, nursing are a few possibilities. Their elderly impoverished teacher with a face like a toad and a heart of gold was a personal favourite. Their fathers, three Cazalet siblings, are all veterans from WWI. The eldest is badly affected by his war wounds and suffers from debilitating headaches (how I empathized with him!), the second is an inveterate womanizer who descends into downright disgusting lechery, while the third and youngest (and comparatively poor) brother has married a very young girl who seems to offer nothing but her beauty, after tragically losing his first wife, and badly failing to establish his painting career. Their unmarried sister meanwhile is charged with caring for her elderly father who is slowly losing his eyesight but not ready to relinquish his post of command, while she is also involved in a chaste love affair more or less sanctioned by the family.

These are innocent times, when the menace of oncoming war seems more like a fictional possibility than a real threat, though by the second summer, in 1938, when the German annexation of Czechoslovakia seems inevitable and before the signing of the Munich agreement, preparations for an assault are underway at the Cazalet compound just in case Chamberlain’s meeting with Hitler doesn’t go so well and London must be evacuated. All in all, a very satisfying piece of historical fiction seen through a modern writer’s eye, so that things which would have been left unsaid by a contemporary writer are here fully revealed. This very much brought to mind another favourite female British author’s work, The Camomile Lawn by Mary Wesley, which was also written in the late 20th century; it too is about a large family clan, with the story beginning during innocent pre-war summer holidays, here taking place in Cornwall. The fifth book in the Cazalet Chronicles was published recently and I will almost certainly make my way to it with time. Thanks to Suzanne and Heather on LibraryThing for strongly recommending this series of novels. I should also mention that the narration by Jill Balcon was delightful. ★★★★⅓