The Secret History

It is hard to sum up a book when it is one of your particular favourites. I’ve read The Secret History by Donna Tartt for a number of years now, finding that it reveals something new and even more insightful each time I read it. This book is dark, haunting and simply breathtaking.

To start off, this book is not new. It was a debut novel for Donna Tartt, who has just released her third book The Goldfinch (it is excellent, by the way!). It’s considered a modern classic, and it reads like the great English novels of the post war period – very Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. The themes are dark and the characters are corrupted by their desires and fears, running like a Greek Tragedy straight to the lines of fate and their individual fatal flaw. The Secret History is a powerful emotional roller-coaster.

The main premise of the book is a murder. This isn’t a spoiler; it’s in the first line of the prologue. Five students of a tight knit circle of classical Greek studies are waiting in the woods to murder the sixth member of their group, Bunny Corcoran. Richard Papen narrates the events that led up to the murder, and the dark and sudden impact it leaves on the group in the wake of their unspeakable act.

Richard admits that his fatal flaw is “a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs”. It is quite tragic the way he filters the world through rose-coloured glasses, and is so willing to search for the best in possibly the most despicable group of friends ever. Richard was never satisfied with his life in California so when he moves to Hampden College, Vermont to study, he reinvents himself completely – telling lies of orange groves, oil riches and show-biz parents so as to fall in with a crowd of elite Classics students. Henry, Francis, Charles and Camilla (twins) and Bunny are painted in a fantastical, golden light. Richard is enthralled by their style, wealth and elegance, and seeks to immerse himself in the group, joining their class, which is led by the enigmatic professor, Julian Morrow. They study the classics, and are obsessed with living forever and the concept of losing one’s ‘self’. As this thirst to lose control grows, they are swept up in a tragic chain of events that leads a group of students to contemplate and commit murder.

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The crime is mentioned right off the bat and in the first chapter you might ask how anyone could kill off Bunny; how could these charming people be driven to such a thing? Then… oh wow. Donna Tartt is an incredible writer, an absolute poet. The descriptions give you chills, the characters are as flawed and duplicitous as they come but they are believably so – as a somewhat omnipresent narrator, we learn through Richard the circumstances of upbringing, personal choice, free will that has compelled the characters along the path they choose.

This is not a book about hope. No Law and Order type of justice prevailing. The Secret History is a portrait of a murder unpunished by anything other than the characters’ own sense of guilt and emotional burden. It’s a deep psychological thriller, as the pressure of keeping their crime a secret in the face of friends and their victim’s family, begins to crack the once proud and aloof group. Everyone in this book is pretty foul, relatively despicable. And yet… yet, they are the most realistic and compulsively readable people! Everyone, even the minor characters, are given so much detail and depth you feel like you’re looking right at them. It’s a novel to get fully immersed in and come out the other side seeing that beautiful things can be an illusion and evil is not always recognized.

There is great homage paid to classical writers – the characters study Greek, with fascinating discourse on Greek writers and mythology – and an underlying allusion to The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald. The Secret History is an amazing novel, poetic and raw, elegant, horrifying and amusing. I thoroughly recommend perusing this modern classic when one gets a chance!

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