#tobyreads: Brief Notes on a Rupert Thomson Novel


I started reading the novels of Rupert Thomson a few years ago, based on the fact that Maud Newton had very good things to say about his work. I wasn’t disappointed–his novels Death of a MurdererThe Book of Revelation, and Divided Kingdom are all atmospheric, morally-charged fictions that continue to haunt me now, years after I first read them.

I picked up Secrecy, Thomson’s latest novel, a couple of weeks ago. On the surface, it seems a bit more conventional than the other works of his that I’ve read: it’s a historical novel, and the storytelling conventions involve one narrative wrapped within another. In the opening pages, an artist named Zummo visits a woman, explaining that he is in ill health, and has information he must impart to her. The bulk of the novel is set ten years earlier, as Zummo journeys to Florence to take up a commission, and finds himself enmeshed in court intrigue and illicit romance. That on its own would be a enough to make for a compelling narrative: archetypal, possibly, but archetypal narratives work for a reason. Palace intrigue is like a heist story: it’s inherently compelling, and you can do any number of variations on it to fit a variety of settings.

There are definitely echoes of Thomson’s other work here, too. While Zummo seems to be a straightforward narrator, the book occasionally shifts into a more dreamlike tone. It’s a technique Thomson has used masterfully in several of his novels: hint that we’re seeing something straightforward, and then reveal that perception may have played a larger role in the narrative than we thought. Zummo’s past is hinted at in a number of situations, sometimes as victim, and sometimes in a more ambiguous role. And, as in Divided Kingdom, the Florence of this novel is a dangerous, oppressive place, and one where certain things the protagonist takes for granted might be putting him in horrific danger. Alternately: it’s a new wrinkle on Thomson’s style, and a welcome addition to his body of work.


A lot of my reading lately has been for freelance assignments. I’m hoping to get to some books that have been on my t0-read shelf for ages this weekend. I also have a fair amount of periodicals to get through: new issues of The Pitchfork Review, Lucky Peach, and Howler, and the first Guernica Annual. It’s likely that next week will find me in the mode of reviewing shorter works, which I’m looking forward to.

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