Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Review: 'The Secret History' by Donna Tartt

The Secret HistoryThe Secret History is the kind of book you hear about, repeatedly. Somehow it seems to be part of popular culture in a way that makes it both a necessary read and yet one of those books you never read. Tartt's book first came out in 1992 and became an immediate bestseller. For many of my university friends it was also the kind of book that made them wish for a more Classical education, full of cigarettes, alcohol and mysterious friends. So when one of my best friends finally read it and raved to me about it I knew I had to get on it.

Publication date: 1992
Publisher: Vintage, Penguin
Under the influence of their charismatic classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfits at an elite New England college discover a way of thinking and living that is a world away from the humdrum existence of their contemporaries. But when they go beyond the boundaries of normal morality they slip gradually from obsession to corruption and betrayal, and at last - inexorably - into evil.

The fascinating thing, for me, about The Secret History was that it isn't a whodunnit-story, but a whydunnit, a kind of reversed crime story. Tartt reveals in the prologue who has died and who was there when it happened. In a lot of novels this would lead to boredom or a stagnant plot, but Tartt creates such fascinating characters that it never does. At the heart of The Secret History are six students who are, when you get down to it, quite despicable. They are pretentious, elitist, completely unaware and uninterested in the world around them, and, above all, mainly interested in themselves. And yet Tartt makes you care about these characters, gives them enough vulnerability that they still remain human. The main character, Richard Pappen, is to the other five characters what Nick Carraway is to Jay Gatsby, and yet also what Jay Gatsby is to the rest of the world. On the one hand this outsider of the elite is a necessary part of the group, completing it, and yet the way he presents himself is faked. He builds up a character for himself which he comes to inhabit completely, and Richard draws attention to this as well, how he has become what he tried to be. As the novel rolls on Tartt reveals how, actually, not only Richard is acting but how each of the characters has something about them which is put on, a darker side which is usually hidden but revealed when one comes to close.

The Secret History is one of those novels which focuses on a group of students inspired by a teacher, who selects them as his, or her, special elite. This is a trope which appears quite frequently in both literature and film and which I'm personally intrigued by. Another example of this is The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark, in which Miss Brodie selects a group of six students (like Prof. Julian Morrows does in The Secret History) to mentor in a more classical way, elevating them above the rest of the school, thereby isolating them. Another example is the novel Cracks by Sheila Kohler, which has a brilliant film adaptation, in which we again find a female teacher selecting a group of students. The desire of these kind of teachers always seems to be to enlighten their students, to broaden their horizons, give them a Classical training which will make them better people. And yet each of these teachers ends up corrupting his or her students, letting their desire to mould young people after their own image take over. Each of these novels and films ends in tragedy. Even a "good" example of this, The Dead Poet's Society has its fair share of tragedy and technically ends sadly. What makes The Secret History so interesting is that the tragedy is already revealed and Tartt can focus her whole energy on why and how, and if we, the reader, maybe could do the same.

What makes The Secret History one of the best novels I've read in a while is absolutely Tartt's writing style. Her sentences feel perfectly structured and complete. They might stretch on for lines and lines and yet you never get tired of reading and you never loose your way. Her character building is brilliant because Tartt knows how to create a character through more than just descriptions. Every word or action somehow reflects who her characters are and tells us much more than she could if she had to spell their feelings out. Her descriptions of places are also stunning. They often visit one of the student's estates and Tartt manages to make it sound like a veritable Eden on earth. Similarly, her whole novel is infused with this sense of nonchalance that comes from wealth, a similar atmosphere you can find in books describing the '20s. Everyone is drinking, smoking, popping pills and having deep conversations about Classical Greek in the middle of the night. The Secret History really describe a different kind of world, one which perhaps didn't seem too far away in the 1999s, but feels like a distant dream now. And this is where the seductive quality of the book lies as well. The life led by the six protagonists is almost enviable, they are almost likeable, they are almost good people and their actions are almost justified. And as a reader it is so easy to imagine you'd do better in that situation, that really they aren't so wrong because their mistakes were only small, all things considered.

Walking away from The Secret History after the last page, then, is almost impossible. Because Tartt tells us the answer to the puzzle at the beginning, we become invested in the book not for the final reveal, but for the feel of it. As such, the ending feels like an anti-climax because life simply continues. Part of the beauty of The Secret History is that while its plot may feel unrealistic, it is written and presented so normally that it never feels outlandish. And even though despicable, or at least questionable, things happen throughout the novel, the characters and the world just keep going. However, I've always found a slightly frustrating ending which leaves you with morality questions to be a trademark of great books. And it's also a sign why Tartt deserves to be recognized as a contemporary master of literary fiction.

I give this novel...

5 Universes!

I absolutely loved The Secret History and it's one of the rare cases where I think the book actually lives up to the hype and even exceeds it. Nothing could've prepared me for the fluidity and beauty of Tartt's style and she has totally won me over. I'd recommend this to fans of Literary Fiction and Detective Fiction.


  1. Love this review! I enjoyed The Secret History even more than The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, which is another favorite. It is incredible how Donna Tartt can make us so interested in these snobby, despicable characters and in a murder mystery though we learn who the murderers are in the prologue. This book also made me wish for a few weeks that I had majored in Greek, and I probably would have switched to a Greek major had my uni had one. :)

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