There has been no shortage of praise for Rupert Thomson’s latest work of historical fiction, Secrecy; the Independent called it “fabulously atmospheric” while the Financial Times lauded the novel for its “superb depiction of a pre-Enlightenment world, shimmering with superstitions, repression and incomprehension”. Set in a meticulously realised 17th century Florence, Secrecy follows “Zummo”, a fictionalised version of the Italian sculptor Gaetano Giulio Zumbo, famous for his wax models of corrupt and decomposing corpses, in his negotiation of the delicate politics of the Medici court.
Beginning in the year 1701, the year of the sculptor’s death, the body of the novel is presented as a confessional flashback. Zumbo recounts to the Grand Duchess of Tuscany, Margueritte Louise d’Orléans, during her residence at the Abbaye Saint Pierre de Montmartre, the events which took place during his stay in Florence. With its focus on political intrigue, the ‘Othering’ of foreign figures, and corrupt clergymen, the novel observes many of the tropes of Gothic fiction, recalling Anne Radcliffe’s The Italian (1797) in particular. While rooted far more firmly in historical fact than was the trend of the novels of the 18th century from which it takes its cues, Thomson’s narrative is similarly structured around the development of a budding romance against the backdrop of an oppressive and hypocritically judgmental society.
Where Radcliffe’s novel was a reaction to the explicitly detailed sexual deviancies of Matthew Lewis’ The Monk (1796), foregrounding the same critique of Catholicism and the Inquisition in a less graphic but no less effective manner, Secrecy retrofits the last decade of the 17th century with the Gothic’s preoccupation with darkness and corruption in order to weave a dark tale around the city hailed as the birthplace of the Renaissance. Appropriately, perhaps, for a story centred on a sculptor, Thomson’s style is both visceral and sensuous; his descriptive language shapes the city in all of its corrupt splendour whilst avoiding becoming belaboured with adjectives. Just as Zumbo’s models of corruption are reflective of the social climate in which he lives, Thomson’s novel sculpts a tangible model of Renaissance Florence.
Eschewing conventional chapters, the novel is structured instead in three sections, with Zummo’s flashback being bookended by Margueritte Louise’s reception of his tale, which might easily be termed prologue and epilogue. The lack of chapters makes it somewhat difficult to divide Secrecy into convenient sections, and adds to the sense of immersion which Thomson creates, ensnaring his audience in his carefully constructed atmosphere of sinister intrigue. The flashback structure suits the first person perspective from which the novel is narrated, allowing the author to shape “Zummo” into a psychologically complex character whilst simultaneously placing the reader in the role of outsider alongside the Sicilian. However, this structure also limits the development of the other characters in the novel. Faustina, “the woman whose elusiveness mirrors [Zummo’s] own”, is a particular victim of this limitation, rarely transcending her status as demure object of desire, despite the generous amount of back story with which she is provided. Indeed, her import on the story’s plot is highlighted and emphasised to a far greater extent than the depths of her character are explored.
The lack of secondary character development throughout the novel, however, is a failing which can arguably be ascribed to tying the novel’s narrative voice to a single character; yet the fluid and inherently visual manner of Thomson’s storytelling combines with his diligent research to create an engaging tale of romance, corruption, and intrigue, set against a remarkably detailed recreation of 17th century Florence.