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Review: Secrecy, By Rupert Thomson

This hallucinatory historical novel brings 17th-century Florence to life – despite a macabre plot full of life-like figures and murder victims
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We all know by now that Hilary Mantel's Thomas Cromwell books are riding the crest of a trend for historical literary fiction – some examples of it better than others. You can't just bash these things out, you see; there's the research, there's the forgetting the research, then there's the finding a prose style that bridges the centuries, offering a suitably "now" way of showing "then".

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So, I have no idea whether Rupert Thomson is consciously leaping on a bandwagon with Secrecy, his ninth novel. But the wild variety of his previous settings and subjects (a dystopian state-of-the-nation thriller; an S&M psycho-sexual nightmare; a corporate satire) means that a courtly mystery set in late 17th-century Florence was always likely to pop up at some point.

Secrecy's protagonist is Zummo, a maker of beautiful and macabre waxworks, who is offered the patronage of the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo III. He is happy to have something like a regular job after a life more or less on the run, having been drummed out of his Sicilian hometown as a teenager for rumoured necrophiliac tendencies. That his past is something Zummo will need to keep hidden in this city of intrigue and religious orthodoxy is clear from his arrival, when he sees the heads of "Sodomites" spiked on the battlements of the Bargello prison.

At first, the pious and melancholic Grand Duke is happy to see Zummo's standard productions, such as his cabinet full of miniature dead bodies in varying stages of decay: "A half-naked woman sprawled in the foreground, her flesh a shade of yellow that suggested her death was recent. Nearby was a baby who had been dead for some time, its face and body a dark soil-brown." Zummo sees the Grand Duke bend closer, "his nose only inches from the surface, as if he wanted to plunge into that rotting world and feast on the corruption."

Soon, however, Zummo receives a very specific, and very secret commission: to make a waxwork woman, life-size and, in the Grand Duke's words: "'Reclining. In her natural – ' His right hand began to caress the air. 'A kind of Eve.'"

Making her anything less than perfect is not an option: this naked Eve is clearly a replacement for the Duke's French wife, who has fled their marriage for glittering Paris, and whom he still passionately, hopelessly loves. Making her perfect, however, might be no less dangerous. Zummo's dealings with Bassetti, the Grand Duke's Machiavellian private secretary, and Bassetti's chief spy, the sinister monk Stufa, are enough to convince him that, should the model be discovered, it will be his head, not the Grand Duke's, that will end up as decoration for the city's battlements.

There are enough threads of plot and theme here to power any novel, but part of the pleasure of Thomson's books is that, though they sometimes wear the trappings of genre, the machinery underneath never runs quite as you would expect. The sinister monk, the sexually repressed religious ruler, the illicit love affair Zummo starts with a mysterious local woman, and the body of a murdered girl, procured as model for his waxwork Eve, and who has a strange sign – the head of a dog – carved into the skin of her neck: all these point the reader towards certain destinations, some of which are eventually reached, but rarely by the route you are expecting to take.

Thomson has said in interviews that he leaves the plotting of his novels to his subconscious, rather than following a preconceived plan, and as with his previous books there is something deliciously hallucinatory about Secrecy. It doesn't grab you, as a reader, or get its hooks into you; it glides past, like a river or a fever dream. Where Mantel's immediate, visceral present-tense prose in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies is an immersive experience, this is more distant, like a luxurious art-house film, seducing you with its beautifully paced, beautifully framed images.

Thomson's description of Zummo dismembering the dead girl is typically languorous: "I sliced through one of the main veins. Out seeped a thin, transparent liquid, a sort of serum. This was followed by a dark-red jelly, which oozed lazily across the dissecting table's chilly marble top," while in the Grand Duke's menagerie, monkeys swing "fluidly through the upper reaches of their cages, frowning like old men" and vultures "shifted and sulked, their plumage the stiff dull black of widows' weeds".

If this easy, elegant prose is nothing more than surface, then it is gratifying that Secrecy also has depths, even chasms. It has hidden ditches in pitch-black alleyways and deep wells covered in twigs and branches; roofs are there to fall off. I don't doubt there is research here, but it is Thomson's subconscious that rules the past in this book, and I bend the knee before it.