Given the interviews Rupert Thompson has given recently to promote Secrecy, he well knows he’s something of an under-celebrated novelist, a treat for the cognoscenti yet largely unknown beyond his fan base. Despite producing over a twenty-five year period a brace of perfectly formed and unsettling novels, like Dreams of Leaving, The Insult and The Book of Revelation, Thompson has never won a major prize. Secrecy, a stylish, discomforting foray into historical fiction, should change this.
Secrecy is set in the 1690s in Florence, a city with its Renaissance glory days long behind it now governed by a puritanical regime under which love affairs and sexual misconduct are punishable by death. The narrator is Gaetano Zummo, Sicilian exile, abandoned by his family, subject of a fraternal vendetta and a maker of wax images obsessed with ‘corruption and decay.’ Zummo has secrets that have kept him on the move for years, and it’s intimated and never formally denied that he has a history of sexual degeneracy and transgression. Florence is a dangerous place for a man like Zummo dependent on ducal patronage. With its hierarchies of clerical officialdom and a psychotic Dominican out to get Zummo, Florence is very much ‘a place where paranoia [is] completely justifiable.’
Zummo receives a commission from the lugubrious, love-sick Duke of Tuscany to make a wax effigy of a beautiful woman, a female paragon designed to replace his absent wife. Drawn into an unwise tryst with Faustina, an apothecary’s daughter, and attracting the attentions of Stufa, the Dominican enforcer of standards of public morality, Zummo allows himself to play private games with his commission, hiding symbolic objects within the wax of the Duke’s ideal woman. There’s a net here and it tightens. It is always unclear who Zummo really is and what he’s supposed to have done and as such there’s a touch of the Josef K about him. Rising tiers of arbitrary judgement seem to swirl spiral-like above him. Throughout, there’s a palpable atmosphere of menace and peril. ‘The people you think you know,’ says Zummo, ‘you hardly know at all.’
Secrecy is a pacy and plotted novel nonetheless, despite being thick with visceral detail and bizarre anecdote (one memorable digression involves a friend of Faustina’s taking a potion in an attempt to fly from the roof of a hundred-year old woman’s ‘ghost house’). Brilliantly weighted description give the prose a charge throughout. Rain ‘slants down like vicious pencil strokes’. A black sky appears to ‘have a surface to it, like water.’ Everything is rendered calmly odd and threatening, as if every utterance, every gesture, the weather above Florence and the interactions of its inhabitants conceal layer upon layer of secrets. When Zummo shows the Duke a sample of his earlier work, a scene in wax of rotting women strewn around a ruined grotto, the Duke is so drawn to the arrangement that he appears to want ‘to plunge into that rotting world and feast on the corruption.’ It’s as if he wants to possess a secret world. In a state where Stufa’s Office of Public Decency wages a war on the private life, wax, for Zummo, becomes a type of secrecy in itself, ‘a form of protection, a kind of veil.’
This might just be the novel that widens Thomson’s undoubted appeal. It might just be a candidate for the Booker. It’s that sort of book: impressive in imaginative reach and genuinely haunting.