Book review: Secrecy by Rupert Thomson

All considerable novelists sometimes echo those who have come before them. For example: “If somebody was dispatched to put an end to me, this, surely, was how it would feel – an innocent face, a few words intended to reassure, a short walk in the dark ...”

Secrecy by Rupert Thomson

Granta, 312pp, £14.99

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

The narrator’s voice in Rupert Thomson’s new novel is always convincing, always authentically his own, but behind this sentence is Graham Greene, its tone and rhythm unmistakable. The practice of novel-writing is like a relay race, the baton passed on from one generation to another. In setting and story, Thomson’s novel is very different from anything Greene ever wrote; yet in reading it I time and again caught echoes of Greene. Another instance: “You should always wish success on your enemies. If they’re happy – and if they feel blessed – they’ll be far less likely to turn on you.”

Secrecy is set in Florence at the end of the 17th century. The title is a good one. Florence, fallen far from the days of the High Renaissance, is now in the reign of the second last of the Medici dukes, Cosimo III, a poor, wretched and dangerous place, a city of dark alleys where life is cheap and murder commonplace, of puritanical bigotry and persecution of sexual deviants, corruption and torture chambers. The narrator, Zummo, is a Sicilian who fled from his native island in fear of his life. He is an artist, specialising in wax sculptures, studies of plague victims and others who have died horribly; the chief influence on his work, he tells us, was Caravaggio, and the novel is lit like a Caravaggio painting, flashes of light in shadowy obscurity.

He has been summoned by the Grand Duke, an admirer of his work. Cosimo is a wretched figure, yet frightening on account of his power. He is oppressed by the failure of his marriage to a French princess, a granddaughter of Henri IV and cousin of Louis XIV. She gave him three children, somehow, then left him and now lives in a convent in France. There may have been another illegitimate child, a daughter, born and reared in secrecy. Is she the mysterious girl with whom Zummo falls in love?

Cosimo has taken refuge in religion, though it does not ease his troubled spirit; it has made him a persecutor, abetted by a sinister Dominican, Stufa, who, like many bigots, is also a hypocrite, the novel’s villain. The Duke, however, admires and protects Zummo, whose necrological craftsmanship appeals to his troubled spirit. He gives him a financially rewarding but dangerous commission: to create an ideal wax image of a beautiful woman. For this Zummo needs a corpse. He gets one from the mortuary: the body of a beautiful girl found dead, but almost unblemished, in the canal. But how did she die and who was responsible for her death? And why had the head of a dog been carved into her skin “at the top of her spine, just above the first cervical”. Is there some connection with the Dominicans who are themselves know as “canes dei” – “the dogs of God”? This is, among other things, a crime novel. It is also a love story and a moving one.

Thomson, drawing, I assume, on detailed research, meticulously and with fine imagination, describes how Zummo works. Some may find this the most fascinating part of the novel; others will run their eyes quickly over these passages, eager to get on to the action. No matter; they contribute to the impression of the novel’s authenticity. You have no doubt that you are in the hands of an author who knows precisely what he is doing.

The plot is strong and convincing, with Zummo’s back story fully sketched in, and its denouement thrilling, the characters well-drawn, of their period but not confined by it. This is as it should be. The past may be, as LP Hartley, famously put it, “a foreign country” – where “they do things differently”, but all good historical novels remind us that human nature is much the same on all ages, only the manner in which it expresses itself changing. Zummo’s Florence is a police state and one where people live in fear, surviving only if they are ever alert to the dangers that encompass them, and are careful to guard their secrets; echoes of Greene again here.

Thomson writes an often glittering prose, and its occasionally distracting. This is a minor criticism, because more often than not, the striking sentences do their proper work, contributing to the frightening and claustrophobic world in which his characters are trapped. Even the sometimes excessive decoration is venial. In short this is a very fine novel, one which invites rereading.