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book review

The author Rupert ThomsonRobin Farquhar Thomson

Rupert Thomson should be better known than he is. He is a brilliant storyteller, and as confident and accomplished a writer as anyone working in the English language today. His previous novels, all eight of them, are each completely different, each more significant and polished than its predecessor. His plots have been either too quirky and/or British to endear him to a North American audience, especially recently, and they have been impossible to encapsulate without undermining their importance, their power or their craft.

Try this: A man goes out to buy a package of cigarettes and is kidnapped and held as a sex slave by three women. Or this: A policeman volunteers to spend the night guarding the body of the most reviled murderer in British history, to prevent the possibility of any attempts to violate it.

Thomson is a bold and astonishingly creative genius, consistently unexpected, with an uncanny ability to make the extraordinary familiar, and to weave most subtly within his unusual stories crystalline observations of what it is that makes us human, and why morality matters. His dazzling new book is, on the surface, a wonderfully realized historical novel, and may perhaps remedy his relative obscurity. With the sweep, ambition and pace of a Dumas swashbuckler, Secrecy has the Thomson trademark unexpectedness, but his narrative artistry has never been more gloriously realized than it is here.

The story opens with Zummo, a sculptor, on a hill above 17th-century Florence, looking forward and backward with equal trepidation. Driven from his homeland of Sicily by jealousy and innuendo, he can't escape the possibility that his reputation, justified or not, will catch up to him. Summoned to Florence by the Grand Duke, Cosimo de Medici, Zummo can't shrug off the cheerless and blasted landscape he has traversed en route to the city, nor shake the misgivings that assail him as he prepares to enter it.

The artistic talent that has brought the Sicilian to the attention of the Grand Duke is not an ordinary one. Zummo works in wax, and his sculptures are odd and morbid. He delays his attendance at court after his arrival; only after he is sent for does he finally make an appearance.

Florence, in 1691, does not appear to be the ideal home for a man of his particular artistic bent. "Though everything was forbidden in Florence, anything was possible," Zummo notes. The Office of Public Decency has the power to imprison or flog citizens for even the most innocent interactions between unmarried people. Minor functionaries are not to be trifled with; foreigners are viewed with suspicion.

The Grand Duke, a pious and self-absorbed man still smarting from his failed marriage, is captivated by the sculptor's work, and arranges a generous stipend. His private secretary is not so enamoured of Zummo, or his close relationship with the Grand Duke. Zummo also makes an enemy of a sinister priest named Stufa, the protegé of the Grand Duke's mother, after which time his work and his lifestyle become liabilities.

Secrecy is ambitious in its reach, luminous in its realization – a book of almost infinite detail. Every scene, every character, every emotional transaction draws weight and credibility from Thomson's powers of observation. This is a novel about big and important matters; about influence, about art, about politics, about duty, about truth and, of course, about secrecy. But in the end, it's a book about love.

Rarely does a book that's so accommodating and absorbing for readers pack the moral muscle and the emotional impact that Secrecy manages so apparently effortlessly. It's hard to imagine that there will be a better novel written this year.

Ben McNally is a bookseller in Toronto.