Book Review: Secrecy by Rupert Thomson

If Secrecy’s winding streets, deadly conspiracies, and self-conscious aestheticism invite comparisons to Umberto Eco, its central conceit is that of Pygmalion and Galatea: a beautiful statue that is all but living in its vibrant sensuality. In Rupert Thomson’s latest novel, though, the relationship between eroticism and art acquires a distinctly dangerous edge as it intersects with passion, intrigue, and violent death in late seventeenth-century Florence.

Secrecy is a novel that lives up to its name, and it would be a shame to give away too much of its plot. Suffice it to say that it is the story of Gaetano Zummo, a sculptor whose macabre wax stylings have caught the eye of Cosimo III de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Florence. The Duke, however, has something quite different in mind when he commissions a statue; tormented by memories of his failed marriage to the callous and willful Marguerite-Louise of Orléans, Cosimo asks Zummo to fashion a woman for him—a “kind of Eve”—out of wax. It is, as Zummo quickly realizes, a request that “teeter[s] on the brink of the illicit,” not least because the Grand Duke himself has worked to stamp out any and all sexual misconduct with extraordinary fervor. Further complications arise in the form of Faustina—a young Florentine woman of mysterious parentage with whom Zummo falls in love—and in the rumors from Zummo’s own past that continue to shadow his later life.

Secrecy is a novel that is difficult to classify, much less review. There is suspense here in plenty, but it never quite reaches the crescendo one would expect of a pure thriller. Its climaxes rarely clarify, and when they do, it is only in the most oblique and subjective of ways. Instead, there is a low, persistent hum of danger that threads its way through the pages of the novel—a thick and almost oppressive sense of the sinister and bizarre that never quite explodes the way you expect it to. It is, perhaps, a murder mystery rewritten as a love story; in place of exposition and answers, the novel’s ending offers a luminous but bittersweet meditation on love. Certainly there is a languorous, liquid quality to Thomson’s prose even (and especially) in the novel’s most unnerving moments. Take, for example, the following passage in which Zummo recalls an encounter with the menacing Dominican priest Stufa:

It didn’t bother him if he upset me. Not in the slightest. In fact, he seemed to want to upset me.

Did I scare you?

His cheekbones sticking out like knuckles, a sharpness to his mouth, his tongue. That black flower again, its petals opening and closing…

My eyes grew heavy. I let my head rest on my arm and found myself returning to Siracusa.

The image of the black flower is as apt a metaphor as any for the peculiar, morbid beauty of Thomson’s writing. It is not simply that Secrecy imbues scenes of danger with a distinctly sexual charge; any erotic thriller can do that. Instead, it courts and caresses danger; the tone is not merely erotic, but loving.

This is, of course, in keeping with Secrecy’s reworking of the Pygmalion myth. Thomson is clearly interested in the connections between art, sexuality, and creation—a point underscored by the shifting relationships between Zummo, Faustina, and the Grand Duke’s statue. And it is vital to the novel’s logic that these relationships are shifting rather than stable, because art, in Secrecy, is a matter of what Thomson dubs “liminality.” In his efforts to “build something ambiguous” into his own work, Zummo is driven to represent not merely the ambiguous but the outright impossible; inside the statue he creates, Zummo places a wax replica of an infant, thereby making his work at once virginal, seductive, and maternal. Or, in Zummo’s words:

Though the work might appear to contradict itself, both the size of the baby and the shape of the girl’s belly were authentic, true. They were simply taken from different stages of her existence. I was showing the present and the future in the same breath. I was collapsing time.

Nowhere is this liminality more evident, though, than in Thomson’s blurring of the lines that separate birth and artistry from death and destruction. Zummo casts his statues from corpses; the violent death of a young woman is the prerequisite for the multiple acts of creation described above. To his credit, Zummo himself recognizes that he is in some sense revictimizing his model. Nonetheless, it was this transmutation of female suffering into art that I found the most disturbing element of a novel brimming with unsettling revelations, and I’m still not quite sure what to make of it.

In fact, Secrecy is a novel that left me with just as many questions as it did answers. Though the plot itself is not nearly as byzantine as it could be, there is a complex weaving and interweaving of images and themes that can easily overwhelm the reader; when I first closed the book, I was uncertain how I felt about it. It lingered in my mind, however, and slowly began to coalesce into something with an undeniable (if elusive) unity of tone and vision. Don’t be fooled by Secrecy’s Gothic overtones; this is a novel to read slowly and attentively.

Secrecy was originally published in 2013 by Granta Books. My own copy is the Other Press reprint edition, published in April 2014. Learn more about Secrecy on Goodreads.


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Filed under Book Reviews, Books I've Read (and Thought About)

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