Book Review: The Secret History by Donna Tartt

 

The Secret History - Donna Tartt (Vintage Contemporaries, 1992)

The Secret History – Donna Tartt (Vintage Contemporaries, 1992)

It’s rare that I really neglect my child in order to read a book, but I came pretty close while reading The Secret History. Tartt provides all the suspense of a good mystery, mixed in with a lot of thoughtful philosophy, strong characters, and great writing.

Our narrator is Richard, a young man who escapes his drab, impoverished life in California for an elite New England college. There he falls in with an odd sort of class – a Greek cohort made up of five other students, who take almost all of their classes with one eccentric professor. The setting and the characters have an old-fashioned feel, a sort of Gentlemen’s Club (there’s only one female student among the six), yet the book takes place in or around the 1980s (my best guess, at least). Richard is a scholarship student while the other five are wealthy and he struggles to find his way into their close knit group. They are a strange group: Henry, Francis, Bunny, and the twins, Charles and Camilla. Smart, rather snobby, each with their foibles. Each of the five views Richard in a slightly different light and some are friendlier than others. Bunny (real name Edmund Corcoran) is perhaps the friendliest, which is strange because we know from the prologue that Richard will be part of a group that eventually murders him.

This is where Tartt really shines. One of the things that frustrates me most in otherwise good novels is when it seems that the narrator is withholding information from the reader. (See my thoughts on The God of Small Things.) Here, we know straight from the Prologue that the others will murder Bunny. The story then moves back in time to Richard’s arrival at Hampden College and we follow his early months, getting to know his cohort classmates. For a long time, there’s no indication as to why he might wish Bunny’s death. In the hands of a lesser writer, it would be frustrating to have a first person narrator who isn’t telling us the whole story. Fortunately, Tartt is a first rate writer and she uses Richard to slowly reveal the whole story. It never feels like he’s withholding because the story is always moving along. The reader is constantly pushing forward to figure out the answer to the question, why would five seemingly normal, highly intelligent young people resort to murder?

The plot might sound like a cheap thriller novel but there’s a lot of interesting ideas behind it. And, I imagine, if I knew more about Greek and Classical literature, the book would be full of even more references. The Classical idea of hubris is an important one, something that becomes ever more evident as the story progresses. The development of the characters is also terrific. Richard, as he becomes mired into the lives of his new friends, and the other five, as Richard begins to know and understand them more clearly. It’s a fascinating and powerful look at human nature and just what each one of us might be capable of.

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