The Secret History, by Donna Tartt

Last summer I read – and lovedThe Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. And having heard so many people say that her first novel was even better, I eagerly purchased a copy of it towards the end of last year. In fact, I gave it to my wife as a Christmas gift – one of those classic gifts that’s really a gift for yourself. Mistake. She decided to save it for our holiday, and would (quite understandably) not allow me read it first… which meant four agonising months of waiting to read this novel!

It was worth the wait.

The Secret History is a remarkable novel. Even more so when you consider that it was the author’s debut. It is often described as an inverted detective novel; not so much a who-dunnit but a why-dunnit. From the first page you know that a murder has taken place, with Edmund “Bunny” Concoran being the victim. However, you don’t know why the murder came to happen, and that is the focus of the novel.

The story revolves around a group of six students who are studying classics under the tutorage of the enigmatic Professor Julian Morrow. Richard Papen, the narrator, manages to become part of this select group and finds his eyes opened to a whole new world of ritual and philosophy.

The group is tight-knit, but the relationships are complex. They have lavish dinners together, spend long weekends at family homes, but there seems always to be something bubbling away under the surface, the tension of which Richard can sense, but without understanding. As the dark secrets emerge, cracks begin to form in the relationships. Before long the group decides to kill Bunny, and then has to live with the consequences.

The Secret History is a complex book. It’s a college novel, but with an enormous helping of pretentiousness! The obsession with classical literature and culture, the regular quotations in Greek, the extravagant lifestyles paid for by rich relatives, and the sense of elitism that runs through the interactions between this small group of students and their wider campus all give the characters a slightly unpleasant taste. I didn’t really like any of them, and especially disliked the combination of them. They weren’t exactly anti-heroes, just a collection of spoilt pretentious people.

I think what I disliked most was the effect the group had on Richard Papen. The only one of the group who did not come from wealth, he quickly had to live a lie and keep up appearances around his new group of friends. In real life, I find that kind of falseness distasteful, and when one feels they have no choice but to adopt a lifestyle they can’t afford to in order to fit it, I find that quite sad. So the whole context and vibe of the book was one I found unpleasant, but believable.

There is something strangely impersonal about Richard’s narrative voice. As he reflects back, years later, on the events before and after the murder, there is a coldness to his voice that seems to belie the fact that he hasn’t reconciled the different parts of himself; who he is and who he had to become. A group that promised such life-giving freedom, eventually drained him and left him rather emotionless.

The Secret History is a very accomplished novel. It differs from The Goldfinch in that it’s far more contained. Less of a continent-spanning, globe-trotting epic and more of a tightly-written, psychological exploration. There are similar influences underlying both novels – Crime and Punishment being an obvious one – but they feel very different in scope and scale. The Goldfinch kept me turning pages because I loved the characters. The Secret History kept me turning pages because I hated the characters. The story of The Goldfinch was more enticing, but The Secret History felt better crafted as a whole.

And now I’m in the sad position of knowing that (a) Donna Tartt has only written one other novel to date, (b) it seems to be regarded as her least successful novel and (c) it takes her around 12 years to write a new one. So I shall be purchasing The Little Friend fairly soon and then looking forward to reading her next offering some time in my mid forties…

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