Wax lyrical

Secrecy, by Rupert Thomson, Granta, RRP£14.99, 312 pages

From the cold waters of the Arno, in the Florence of the 1690s, they have retrieved what Zummo very much wants: the perfect woman.

Zummo is a sculptor in wax. He makes effigies for churches, and small studies of criminal bodies in torment, and some foolish people esteem his exquisite works less highly than those crafted in stone or marble. He has escaped a terrifying childhood, beaten by a violent older brother who is also his love-rival (for the love of their mother, for the love of the local beauty in Sicily). Zummo, it seems, has been on a quest for the perfect woman ever since.

Rupert Thomson’s ninth novel is a fiction that has been built, or moulded, around the few biographical details we have about a real Sicilian wax modeller, Gaetano Giulio Zumbo, some of whose work survives.

The author has fleshed out these fragments into a vivid fictional character. The result is Zummo, who has fetched up in decadent, dark-alleyed, stinking Florence. This is a city in which sexual licence is made yet more exciting by being forbidden, like the Vienna of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. In Florence: “Men found to have entered houses that were inhabited by unmarried women had been thrown into prison, and one youth had been sent to the galleys in Livorno, simply because he had stopped on the street and talked to a girl in an upstairs window.” Such draconian laws do not deter our hero from active pursuit of Florentine lovelies, and the city’s brothels do a brisk trade.

The Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo III, has his own reason for banning adultery. His wife, long since decamped home to France, was scornfully unfaithful of him, and details of the Duke’s miserable marriage unfold as the book progresses. Zummo’s quest is not just for bodily gratification. Commissioned by the tormented old Grand Duke to sculpt “A kind of Eve ... something of extraordinary beauty”, he must find a body with the proportions of a goddess.

Thomson’s narrative twists and turns like the darkened alleys of the Renaissance city that he clearly knows so intimately. This is a book that scores top marks for atmosphere, for the way in which the smell, and look, of pre-18th-century Florence is conveyed, for the cinematic sense of menace (sinister sex-mad priests, vengeful courtiers and distrustful whores) that lurks round every street corner, every candlelit arras, and every formal garden.

The plot is extraordinarily convoluted and there were times when I had to reread the previous 20 pages: we are being asked to carry in our heads all the memories of Zummo’s unhappy past in Siracusa; the identity of a lot of very mysterious characters who live quite literally in the shadows and about whom very little is revealed; and the names and details of a number of sexually alluring women whose bodies are delineated more fully than their characters.

But however lost you feel, it is worth pressing on until the moment about halfway through when that unknown girl’s body is hoisted out of the Arno. Now the mystery story really begins to unfold. The description of the method by which Zummo works for 30 hours to take a plaster cast of the corpse, and the depiction of the final object, with its own hair, and glass eyes from Murano, is chillingly brilliant and sinister: “I had paid attention to the most obscure and seemingly insignificant details, the particular hue of an eyelid or fingernail, the special pallor of her parts that rarely saw the light. I had worried she might be too much of an aphrodisiac, and I had been right to worry.”

For Zummo, it is quite difficult to distinguish between the living women after whom he lusts and the waxwork he has made. There are moments when you wonder whether the author, like Zummo himself, is not getting a bit carried away with his creation.

By the time you have finished, however, you will be full of admiration for the finished whole: a superb depiction of a pre-Enlightenment world, shimmering with superstition, repression, and incomprehension, and a plot that really is masterly. I know there’s a Silver Dagger award for the best crime novels. Someone should invent the Silver Knot award for the densest puzzle of the year.

AN Wilson is author of ‘The Potter’s Hand’ (Atlantic)

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