The Secret History by Donna Tartt

tarttThe Secret History, Donna Tartt 1992, Penguin 1993

Richard Papen arrived at Hampden College in New England and was quickly seduced by an elite group of five students, all Greek scholars, all worldly, self-assured, and, at first glance, all highly unapproachable. As Richard is drawn into their inner circle, he learns a terrifying secret that binds them to one another…a secret about an incident in the woods in the dead of night where an ancient rite was brought to brutal life…and led to a gruesome death. And that was just the beginning….

This book was very excellent at escapism. I read through it in two days and hardly put it down. It was never boring and like all great storytellers Tartt made me forget sometimes I was reading a book and made me see the story playing out in my head.

It is like watching a modern Greek tragedy from very close up looking at this story through the protagonist, Richard. But if we had seen it through the other characters it would have been like being in the tragedy itself.

Except for the sullen unrequited desire for Camilla, Richard does not seem to feel any depth of emotion at all.

There is nothing wrong with the love of Beauty. But Beauty- unless she is wed to something more meaningful- is always superficial. It is not that your Julian chooses solely to concentrate on certain things; it is that he chooses to ignore others equally as important.

This for me mirrors the concept of this whole book. It is the argument that the French teacher Laforgue makes as to Richard as to why the Greek professor heading this elitist group is not perfect. I think the main problem I had while reading this book (not that I didn’t enjoy it very much!) was that the snobbish clique did not appeal to me and I found it shallow and ridiculous.

The other characters Charles Francis, Camilla and even Henry, we find, are driven almost mad by their passion and love and jealousy but in a way Richard is like Bunny and just jealously watches from the outside unable to feel the frenzy for himself.

I would have liked to actually see the bachnaal instead of just hearing hints about it from the other characters. In fact the love affairs, the bachnaal experiments, the luxury rooms in Italy were all heard from the other characters so I kept expecting Richard would experience something of this for himself but it never happened.

This is a mystery well worth reading. As the author said herself its not so much a whodunit but a whydunit. We know the character Bunny dies from the first page but the slow eerie build-up to his murder is still horrifying to watch and still a surprise when it happens. Tartt is brilliant at building a slow cold tension and the book is claustrophobic and fairly suffocating to read.

I think if I had read this book when I was sixteen I would have loved it and loved the idealised light the characters paint themselves in and the elitist world they build for themselves but now I see them building themselves from surface and pretensions.  Tartt shows us the pretty decadent looking world and then hints at the sham that it is.


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