Rupert Thomson’s ninth novel is similar to his previous novels in that it is dissimilar from his previous novels (an interesting interview in the Guardian recently wondered if his roving eye had something to do with his lack of awards): set in Florence in the 17th century, the novel concerns a sculptor called Zummo who is famous for his miniature wax works of people dying from the plague (his repute founded in the acuity of his vision, his ability to reproduce death and the effect of disease upon the body to a tee). ‘There was something private, almost sacred about wax,’ Zummo tells us,
‘it demanded vigilance, devotion, subterfuge. Secrecy could be imposed from without, like a punishment or an affliction, but it could also be cultivated, or even willed. It could offer comfort. Provide a refuge. According to Herodotus, the Persians used to cover their dead in wax before they placed them in the ground. Wax was, in itself, a form of protection, a kind of veil.’
Called to the city by the Grand Duke, and fleeing gossip and scandal generated by his unpleasant half brother (who concocted a stew of bestiality), Zummo is quickly caught up in various intrigues in court. ‘I would have to be ingenious,’ Zummo realises, ‘if I were to survive in this city, where scheming and machinations were second nature.’ Following in the footsteps of Machiavelli (sometimes, we are told, quite literally) Zummo is quietly bewitched, by a hand glimpsed through an apothecary’s window, even as he is given a challenging project to work upon in secret: the construction of a life size wax woman for the Grand Duke.
But, of course, Florence – the Florence so adeptly recreated by Thomson in this lavish little masterwork – is a place in which ‘paranoia was … completely justifiable’ – and so Zummo’s fortunes at court (where, he admits, ‘I seemed to provoke others; I was often misinterpreted, misjudged’), Zummo’s secret project and Zummo’s secret love eventually converge and the novel climaxes with a compelling face off in a far off village that recalls the best work of Cormac McCarthy, even as it is shot through with writing and pacing and characters that are all Thomson’s.
Inspired by real life characters, as his previous and equally recommended novel The Death of a Murderer was, and fuelled by both wit and erudition, Secrecy feels like yet one more payoff to readers who have followed Thomson from his debut Dreams of Leaving. There is a secret joy to be had in reading great novels by a great writer who has yet to receive the acclaim they deserve. He has quietly amassed a back catalogue full to the brim with delights (The Insult, Soft, The Book of Revelation, Divided Kingdom and the aforementioned Death of a Murderer are all immensely satisfying, challenging, thrilling, humorous and bright, by turns). Which means at this point that yes, you can read Secrecy, and you should, because it is a fine, fine novel – but you can read in the full knowledge that here is a writer you can still discover, a writer who is still – shhhhh – a secret, known only to the privileged howevermany.
Just don’t tell anyone I told you.
Any Cop?: A beautifully written, quietly thrilling, deeply sensuous novel that will have you conflicted, caught between savouring every word and rushing through the pages to find out what happens next. Highly recommended.