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Literary Fiction Review: 'The Secret History' by Donna Tartt


Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Synopsis (Courtesy of GoodReads)

 misfit at an exclusive New England college, Richard finds kindred spirits in the five eccentric students of his ancient Greek class. But his new friends have a horrific secret. When blackmail and violence threaten to blow their privileged lives apart, they drag Richard into the nightmare that engulfs them. And soon they enter a terrifying heart of darkness from which they may never return....


There is no way that I will be able to convey how beautifully and devilishly complex The Secret History is in this review.  Instead, just trust me when I say that whatever positive impression you take away from reading this, the book is better.  Much better.

The opening chapter sets out pretty clearly where Richard Papen's story is heading.  There are some surprises along the way but this book is mostly about the journey.  Tartt's writing is elegant, verging upon the poetic.  Every turn in the weather and every shift in the atmosphere is perfectly evoked, to the extent that getting wrapped up in the story actually had the power to affect my own temperament.  The pace varies wildly but the writing is such a pleasure to read that I was as happy when I was tangled up in pages of descriptions dedicated to one day as I was when weeks were flying by in the same space.

When I read the first few chapters, I just couldn't see how the story could move convincingly from Richard's first shy days at college to murder.  By the time the narrative spiralled around to the crucial moment, I was almost disturbed to find that I wasn't as repulsed as I probably should have been.  Bunny isn't a character that inspires affection, true, but does that really mean that his murder is acceptable?  Ordinarily, I'd say absolutely not.  It's further testament to the strength of Tartt as an author that I wasn't shocked and appalled but teetering upon understanding, submerged as I was in Richard's concepts of morality and justice and wanton disregard for much beyond his idolatry of Henry and his fellow Greek scholars.

Points that I might have criticised as oversights in other works here just added to the intrigue.  Take Richard's parents, for example.  Richard seems to harbour an irrational almost-hatred of them, to the extent that freezing to death is more appealing than spending winter with them.  There isn't any real reason given for the disdain, beyond a difference in outlook and priorities for life.  My initial reaction was that, for all of the time that I spent in Richard's mind, there were still parts of his character that were under-developed.  On reflection, however, I am more inclined to think that this is owing instead to the framing of the novel as Richard's recollection of his past.  Since it seems that Richard's character is determined more by the events of his college career than his earlier childhood, it actually starts to make a twisted sort of sense that his parents pale into insignificance.

As an extension of the same idea, I suppose, it also makes sense that Henry, Francis and Camilla and Charles are hard to get a handle on, viewed as they are from Richard's sycophantic viewpoint.  Although I will admit to wanting to know more about Henry's Machiavellian genius and being a little disappointed that Camilla remained almost entirely a mystery, it's clear that the story isn't really about them; their mystique is what Richard just can't let go of and what pulls him beyond his comfort zone and into the sinister.  I alternated between wanting to hug him and help him through his pervasive feelings of inferiority and wanting to punch him for being so malleable.  There are some of his actions that can still infuriate me over a week after reading the closing paragraphs. This is just that haunting a book.  Read it.

"Some things are too terrible to grasp at once.  Other things - naked, spluttering, indelible in their horror - are too terrible to really ever grasp at all.  It is only later, in solitude, in memory, that the realization dawns: when the ashes are cold; when the mourners have departed; when one looks around and finds oneself - quite to one's surprise - in an entirely different world" 
[Page 312]

Overall:  Don't go into this expecting a short, sharp hit; be ready to spend some of the long dark evenings that seem so plentiful at the moment curled up, absorbed in some delicious writing.  I borrowed the copy that I read from the local library and will be buying my own copy very soon so that I can be reminded on a regular basis of what truly great fiction is all about.  Take a trip to the dark side with this book and I promise that you won't regret it.

Date finished:  25 October 2012
Format:  Paperback
Source:  Borrowed from my local library
Genre:  Literary fiction
Pictured Edition Published: by Penguin in 1993

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