Funny things happen on Twitter.
One morning a week or two ago, House of Anansi Press, a prominent Canadian publisher, tweeted a challenge: first person to reply with the name of the artist responsible for the tableau pictured would win a reading copy of Rupert Thomson’s latest novel, Secrecy. Honestly, being largely closeted away from contemporary English-Language non-Canadian literature, I’d never heard of Thomson before. There’s a good possibility I’d never have read his work if I hadn’t answered Anansi’s tweet with such dispatch. Such dispatch that I was actually first! A few days later, the book arrived in the mail with a nice little note. It seemed only right that I take a break from Isherwood’s Berlin and Saul’s Voltaire’s Bastards to read through this gift. And a ripping read it is! Thomson’s opening frame narrative of a dark and stormy day in November 1701 immediately hooked me and I stayed on the hook throughout. Thomson is a very comfortable read, even when writing about uncomfortable things such as the clinical dismemberment of a dead body, torture and various killings. Thomson’s fiction of the real Sicilian Baroque wax sculptor Gaetano Zummo is a vivid, almost entirely believable evocation of the late 17th century Florentine court and underworld(s). While not an epic such as Umberto Eco or Roberto Bolaño would produce, Secrecy is distinctly more than a best-seller historical romance. Secrecy is dark, gritty and even borders on smelly. There is profundity to be plumbed. Thomson tells the story of the sculptor’s time in the employ of Grand Duke Cosimo in Zummo’s own voice. Zummo is obsessed with decay and ambiguity in his art — and perhaps in his life. The Florentine world seems to feed those obsessions, beginning with the ominous gift of a wormy truffle on p. 28. Zummo tells us minute and unexpected details which are exquisite and a little frighteningly real, like his reaction to a simple brushing touch at dinner:
I felt a shock go through me, all the way to a small, surprising place in my left heel. (p. 54)
And many questions are left unanswered for both Zummo and the reader, like the significance of Cosimo’s pet cockerel at Zummo’s first meeting with the Grand Duke. Ambiguity and uncertainty are everywhere. Zummo’s love, Faustina, contributes wonderfully evocative descriptions and memories. I noted particularly her father’s horsemanship on page 94:
. . . when her father rode he seemed to float above the saddle, only connected to the horse by the most intangible of threads. His hands on the reins, his feet in the stirrups — but lightly, ever so lightly. They were like completely separate beings who just happened to be travelling in the same direction, at the same speed.
and her exquisite description of her aunt Ginevra’s heart on page 97:
If she tried to imagine Ginevra’s heart, she saw wood-shavings, and bacon rind, and thin, curling off-cuts of boot leather. It was like peering into the corner of a shed, or into a room that was hardly ever used.
But, wait. These are Zummo’s memories of Faustina’s memories. At other points, Zummo tells his story in quoted conversation, but on these and other occasions, he becomes almost an omniscient narrator, apparently able to see the thoughts of Faustina. Is he a reliable narrator? At one point Faustina herself reminds Zummo and us that her memories are not necessarily accurate records. Ambiguity abounds. Some small quibbles: Once or twice as I was reading I felt that a phrase Thomson chose was just a touch anachronistic, perhaps making Zummo’s story accessible, but breaking the period realism briefly. But these moments were so minor I made no lasting note of what exactly the phrases were. I felt personally a little disappointed that the character of Fiore, the young girl who makes herself Zummo’s sidekick, is worth of greater development. She is a gem shining in Zummo’s rot-filled world. But, as I said, these are quibbles. Secrecy is a fine, fascinating, exciting read. Its three hundred pages pass more quickly than one would wish, but it is by no means a light-weight work. Secrecy is packed with sweeping history and tiny detail, but it is never a chore nor overwhelming. Thomson has achieved a fine balance in an intensely human novel I would highly recommend.
By the way, Secrecy would have been a great literary accompaniment to the National Gallery of Canada‘s touring show, Beautiful Monsters recently at the Art Gallery of Alberta and coming next year to the Kamloops Art Gallery and The Rooms in St. John’s, Newfoundland.