Synopses & Reviews
I had left my hometown of Siracusa in 1675, the rumors snapping at my heels like a pack of dogs. I was only nineteen, but I knew there would be no turning back. I passed through Catania and on along the coast, Etna looming in the western sky, Etna with its fertile slopes, its luscious fruits and ﬂowers, its promise of destruction. From Messina I sailed westward. It was late July, and the night was stiﬂing. A dull red moon, clouds edged in rust and copper. Though the air was motion-less, the sea heaved and strained, as if struggling to free itself, and there were moments when I thought the boat was going down. That would have been the death of me, and there were those who would have rejoiced to hear the news.
I was in Palermo for a year or two, then I boarded a ship again and traveled northeast, to Naples. I hadn’t done what they said I’d done, but there’s a kind of truth in a well-told lie, and that truth can cling to you like the taste of raw garlic or the smell of smoke. People are always ready to believe the worst. Sometimes, in the viscous, fumbling hours before dawn, as I was forced once again to leave my lodgings for fear of being discovered or denounced, such a bitterness would seize me that if I happened to pass a mirror I would scarcely recognize myself. Other times I would laugh in the face of what pursued me. Let them twist the facts. Assassinate my character. Let them rake their muck. I would carve a path for myself, something elaborate and glorious, beyond their wildest imaginings. I would count on no one. Have no one count on me. I was in many places, but I had my work and I believed that it would save me. All the same, I lived close to the surface of my skin, as men do in a war, and I carried a knife on me at all times, even though, in most towns, it was forbidden, and every now and then I would go back over the past, touching cautious ﬁngers to the damage. It was in this frame of mind, always watchful, often sleepless, that I made my way, ﬁnally, to Florence.
"Beautifully evocative prose ('A burnt-orange sun dropped, trembling, from behind a bank of cloud, like something being born') makes this unusual historical novel truly memorable. In 1691, a mysterious artist known as Zummo, or Zumbo, with a taste for the macabre, is summoned to Florence by Cosimo III, the Grand Duke of Tuscany. After viewing a typically grim sample of Zummo's work, a tableau in wax depicting plague victims in various stages of deterioration (titled The Triumph of Time), Cosimo hires Zummo to craft a realistic-looking, life-sized woman out of wax. The commission rubs Dominican cleric Stufa, the spiritual adviser to Cosimo's mother, the wrong way. Subsequent court intrigue turns deadly, and, throughout, the reader wonders about the prologue, set in 1701, in which Zummo meets the abbess of a convent in OrlÃ©ans, Marguerite-Louise, whom he confronts with news of her secret daughter before launching into a flashback to his involvement with the Grand Duke. But the plot twists take a back seat to the complex picture Thomson gives of his oddball protagonist, a man given to wandering around carrying 'little theaters filled with...the dead and dying' in the name of art. Agent: Peter Straus, RCW Literary." Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
About the Author
1. Do you regard Secrecy
as a work of historical fiction, literary fiction, suspense, or a mixture of all three? Have you read anything similar to this before?
2. What is unusual about Florence in the late 17th century and why does Thomson choose to set the novel in this time period? What do you think about Thomson’s portrait of post-Renaissance Italy?
3. What is it about Zummo's work that divides people? How do you feel about Zummo’s morbid fascination with death and disease? What could be the source of this fascination?
4. What is Zummo's attitude towards love? Do you think Faustina changes Zummo, or do you feel that he has always been capable of loving someone in such a way? What do you think draws them so close to one another?
5. What might Thomson be trying to say about evil and taking people at face value? Can Zummo be described as evil in any way? What can be said about the relationship between Stufa and Zummo?
6. Is there something that Earhole, Fiore, Faustina, Mimmo, and Zummo have in common? Is Thomson looking to give a voice to the marginalized?
7. Why does Thomson mingle real historical figures with fictional characters? Can you distinguish between them?
8. What do the Grand Duke’s confidants have against Zummo? Why are they so distrustful of him?
9. As Marguerite explains towards the end, “Secrecy had many faces. If it was imposed on you, against your will, it could be a scourge—the bane of your existence. On the other hand, you might well seek it out. Nurture it. Rely on it. You mind life impossible without it. But there was a third kind of secrecy, which you carried unknowingly, like a disease or like the hour of your death. Things could be kept from you, maybe forever.” How does this relate to the structure of the novel?
10. Why does Thomson give Marguerite d'Orleans a voice in the novel?
11. Why does Zummo make the decision he does at the end of the novel? Do you think the reasons he gives Marguerite d’Orelans for his decision are convincing?
Reading Group Guide
A sorcerer in wax. A fugitive. Haunted by a past he cannot escape. Threatened by a future he cannot imagine.
Zummo, a Sicilian sculptor, is summoned by Cosimo III to join the Medici court. Late seventeenth-century Florence is a hotbed of repression and hypocrisy. All forms of pleasure are brutally punished, and the Grand Duke himself, a man for whom marriage has been an exquisite torture, hides his pain beneath a show of excessive piety.
The Grand Duke asks Zummo to produce a life-size woman out of wax, an antidote to the French wife who made him suffer so. As Zummo wrestles with this unique commission, he falls under the spell of a woman whose elusiveness mirrors his own, but whose secrets are far more explosive. Lurking in the wings is the poisonous Dominican priest, Stufa, who has it within his power to destroy Zummo’s livelihood, if not his life.
In this highly charged novel, Thomson brings Florence to life in all its vibrant sensuality, while remaining entirely contemporary in his exploration of the tensions between love and solitude, beauty and decay. When reality becomes threatening, not to say unfathomable, survival strategies are tested to the limit. Redemption is a possibility, but only if the agonies of death and separation can be transcended.