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secrecySeventeenth-century Florence comes alive in this intricately plotted story of a wax sculptor’s unusual commission. 

This elegant novel is set in Florence in the last decade of the 17th century. It’s the story of Zummo, a sculptor who uses wax as his medium and who has been invited to the city  by Cosimo III, the Grand Duke of Tuscany. Gaetano Zummo is a Sicilian who carries with him a history of unsettling accusations from his home town. He has been travelling through the states of Italy, always ready to move on.

The Grand Duke is a complex and unhappy character. He is consumed with unrequited longing for his estranged wife, Marguerite-Louise of Orleans, who hates him and whom he has confined to a convent. He is fascinated by Zummo’s creations – small scenes of human bodies made in coloured wax, in states of illness and death. There is something macabre about both Zummo’s work, and Cosimo’s interest. The Grand Duke gives Zummo a difficult commission, to sculpt a life-sized woman. To do this, Zummo needs to make casts from a real body, and in the process he finds himself connected to a series of characters who work and live in an ambience of menace and illegality, where meanings continually shift.

The story is framed by the thoughts of Marguerite-Louise of Orleans – hers is the narrative voice at the beginning and end of the book –  but the main tale is told by Zummo. Because he is an artist, his observations are rich and very visual. I was enchanted by the way the author has made us see small aspects of Florentine life and Florence itself:

I gazed down on the city once again. Set among the palaces and tenements was the russet dome of Santa Maria del Fiore, like a half pomegranate lying face down on a cluttered dining table, its thick rind hollowed out, its jewelled fruit long gone. I could hear no cries, no bustle, but perhaps that shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me. I thought of the land I had travelled through, the farmhouses unpeopled, roofless, the highways and footpaths overgrown, the unpicked olives staring like blown pupils from their branches.

Ghost country.

And:

I crossed the river by the Ponte Rubaconte, then followed the road that ran along the inside of the city walls. Irises had flowered on the stonework, their fleshy petals mauve and purple. Near the Porta a Pinti, I stopped to watch a man throwing buckets of water over a horse. Its coat gleamed like glass in the summer sun.

This celebration of small visual pleasures is intensified when Zummo begins to fall in love with Faustina, an enigmatic character whose own story is a vital part of what is in fact a subtle thriller. These two are the point around which tides of cruelty, innuendo, misplaced power and perversion flow. There is nothing banal about the relationship; Faustina is a strong but vulnerable character and their growing affection is spiced by wit, warmth and adventure as well as delicately evoked eroticism. The thriller aspect of the story involves people connected to the Duke who are likely to pursue what is seen as perversion, but who are also likely to be cruelly guilty themselves. Their crimes are slowly revealed and understood by Zummo and Faustina.

Zummo’s narrative is interspersed with his dreams, illuminating aspects of the past, including his victimisation by his brother, as well as heightening the distinctly threatening quality of life in Florence. He uses the dreams to try to make meaning of the situation he finds himself in, creating art for the Duke that may be contrary to the religious mores of the time. There are also several tropes in the story that involve illegitimacy. These touch Faustina, Marguerite and Zummo himself and mesh beautifully with the nature of the secrets exposed in the narrative. Zummo talks of the value of dissimulation. ‘Secrecy’ is such a good title!

Interestingly, the 17th century was when the art of biography began to develop. Secrecy is itself a kind of memoir of Gaetano Zummo, for he is an historic figure; he can be found on Wikipedia. Not that it is necessary to look him up, as Rupert Thomson’s lucid and beautiful writing conveys so much detail. Zummo thinks of his creation thus:

What pleased me most though, was her skin. It wasn’t rose or cream, nor was it gold or ochre, yet all these colours were involved. The tones altered in the most delicate and elusive of ways, from the cool ivory of her forehead and the milk blue of her armpits to the hot coral of her nipples as if blood were circling inside her, real blood, sometimes rising to the surface, sometimes holding back, staying deep.

Secrecy is a delightful novel, a book to savour for its intricate plotting and exquisite writing.

Rupert Thomson Secrecy Granta 2013 PB 320pp $27.99

Folly Gleeson was a lecturer in Communication Studies. At present she enjoys her book club and reading history and fiction.

You can buy this book from Abbey’s here or from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.

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