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Novel set in Florence, Italy (Secrecy and Perfume…)

26th April 2013

Secrecy by Rupert Thomson, novel set in Florence.

1847081630.01.ZTZZZZZZWe were intrigued from the moment we saw this book, as it has a voluptuous and stunning cover, a beautifully composed pregnant woman, veiled in dark crimson damask. The book’s spine is gold. Very promising and tasteful! The story follows Zummo, the creator of wax figurines working on a commision from The Grand Duke in late 17th Century Florence. His project is to create a life-size figure of a woman made out of wax. Along the way, and as the story progresses, Zummo meets all kinds of people, embarks on a relationship with Faustina, juggles the vagaries of court procedures and stumbles and negotiates his way through life in Florence in late Renaissance.

Florence comes alive through the pages of this book, life is heavily restricted from the ruling classes downwards, the dirt and despondency rise from the pages, the poverty for many is in every gutter; the fashion of plaiting animal bones into womens’ hair, the food, the drink, the parrots imported from Brazil, the way of life….. and so much more. And yet…. the descriptions sometimes for us just didn’t hit the nail on the head, we don’t for example see the Duomo cupola as “liver-coloured” (maybe it was then?) or resembling an “upended cauldron” – such descriptions belie the warmth of the terracotta colour and harmony of design in the cupola; though of course these descriptions are perhaps a nod to the visceral elements of the storyline.

It is written in a curious style – three chapters of which two are short, the other, middle chapter, is long and forms the main bulk of the narrative. Many of the sentences are short and dialogue can be stilted, which can inhibit the flow of reading. The story felt at times as though there was little cohesion – there are no formal chapters, therefore the transition from one scene to the next, and from one character to the next isn’t always clear. The connective narrative can be a little thin. The creation of the wax female figure is the leitmotif throughout, but, suddenly, from one paragraph to the next, the sculpture is created without further ado. Boom! Finito. So we are left with the backstory of Faustina, how she arrived in the world, and Stufa’s quest to hunt her down, in an endeavour to keep the momentum of the story going and bring it to a conclusion.

Reading Secrecy was like seeing a story through the eyeglasses of Zummo’s mother (as described in the novel) – made of tea-stone quartz, essentially blurred and unfulfilling. There is a nod to Perfume (set in Paris and The South of France) by Patrick Suskind, which has set the bar very high for stories set at the turn of the 17th century, and which tackle the darker side of life, melding a hint of gothic, with other-worldliness, and a good dollop of human depravity and loucheness.

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