Author: Donna Tartt
Publisher: Vintage Contemporaries
Publishing Date: April 2004
Number of Pages: 559 pages
Genre: Mystery, Inverted Detective Story, Literary Fiction
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.
In my quest to read the best books, I have been scavenging the internet for the list of must-read books. Because of this, I was able to encounter listchallenges.com which is a list of books to read, movies to watch and places to go made by various organizations or individuals. I have done a lot of list challenges on books and one of the books that frequently appear in must-read lists is Donna Tartt’s The Secret History.
I have already read Tartt’s Pulitzer award winning work, The Goldfinch when I have heard about the accolades for her debut work. The Goldfinch is also an equally impressive work so my curiosity was piqued when The Secret History kept on coming out of must-read books. For a couple of months, I tried searching for it on popular bookstores to no avail. Fortunately, it was handed to me as a gift on my 26th birthday, adding more value to the book. However, it took me quite sometime before I got around reading this book.
Does The Secret History deserve all the positive reviews? Here’s my thoughts on Donna Tartt’s debut work.
Mystery and detective novels usually start with a murder with the identity of the perpetrators unknown. From that point on, the story flows. However, The Secret History isn’t your ordinary murder story. The book opens with a gruesome crime with the story told by one of the accessories to the crime. Unlike your ordinary murder story, the perpetrators were already identified at the beginning of the story.
Richard Papen, a young upstart from the fictional town of Plano, California, found himself recounting a story that has changed his life. The Secret History is more than just another ghastly murder story, it is a story about the innate darkness that lies deep within us.
Richard, an only son, left his mundane life and his horrible family life in Plano to pursue his studies in the fictional Hampden College, Vermont. In Hampden, Richard got fascinated by an exclusive Greek class which was limited to a group of five students. The class is composed of Francis Abernathy, Edmund Corcoran, Henry Winter, and Charles and Camilla Macaulay.
Richard has studied Greek previously so he wanted to continue on this career path in spite of his parent’s protests. At first, Richard was rejected by the class professor, Julian Morrow but Richard was adamant. His glance kept following the five Greek class students who were treated like celebrities in the campus. While overhearing the group solving a Greek grammar problem, Richard barged in and solved it for them, thus, ingratiating himself to the group. In return, the group gave him advise on how to impress Julian and in no time, Richard found himself the newest member of Julian’s class.
Blinded by the opulence he saw in his fellow classmates, Richard was pushed to compose a fictional background to impress the group. Slowly, the plot thickens as it builds around the circumstances that eventually led to the murder of Edmund by his classmates cum friends. What was expected to be a story about college students being college students takes a dark turn from which return is virtually impossible
But can the perpetrators run away from their crime? This is the question that the second part of the story dwells on. As the story progresses, the reader will learn that the group was able to escape prosecution because their iron clad reputation and alibi left no room for questions. They might have escaped the rules of law, but will they escape the laws of human nature?
The first thing I would say that would characterize the book is that it is filled with dark themes. Although the story revolves around a murder, it also dwells on lust, incest, alcoholism, narcissism among other deviant human behaviors. Albeit the books’ obsession with beauty, traces of darkness is splattered all over it. This makes it a heavier-than-usual read, but then, I found nothing wrong with it.
Because of this revolving theme of darkness, the book appeals to human emotions, although it is veering towards the obverse side as I’ve previously pointed out. As the story progresses, you get to learn each of the character’s darker nature – Richard’s lie about his background, Bunny’s hustler nature, Camilla’s and Charles’ incestuous relationship, Francis’ homosexuality and Henry’s feeling of being dead inside. But in spite of these dark nature, the author is able to brilliantly intermingle these negative traits to weave a darkly wonderful narrative.
Following this theme of darkness, the book is filled with lies, deceptions, and pretensions. Perhaps Richard’s lie about his background is a foreshadowing of the events that are to unfold as each of the characters blindside each other. The grandest of these deceptions ultimately led to the untimely demise of one of the characters.
Aside from revolving around the different facets of darkness, the story is obsessed with everything Greek. It is with the love of Greek that all the main characters found themselves together. It is also for this love of Greek that they have recreated a Roman ritual, Bacchanalia that honors Bacchus, the Roman counterpart of the Greek god of wine and merriment Dionysus.
But it is more than the ritual that gives you the hint that the book is centered on this particular Greek god. The portrayal of the character’s alcoholism is a clear reference to Dionysus. Drinking has become a routine to all of the six students. The book is filled with inebriation that I metaphorically refer to it as having high alcoholic content.
However, it hasn’t failed to catch my attention that the book isn’t entirely Greek. First thing, it used Bacchanal, in reference to the Roman god of wine Bacchus, instead of its Greek counterpart, Dionysia. Moreover, when Henry and Bunny went on a European trip, they went to Italy, instead of Greece. Nonetheless, these are just minor observations.
The books is veering on the intellectual side, hence, to heavier and more serious emotions. It is to bear in a slower and more leisurely pace to fully appreciate it, especially that Donna Tartt has the uncanny ability of superlatively describing scenes, emotions and environments. It is with this knack for describing in words that Tartt was able to brilliantly explore every facet of evil, especially that ones that are within us. This unsavory but realistic view of deeper human emotions is what makes the book work.
Overall, the book is a brilliantly, albeit darkly, crafted masterpiece . I can finally say that Donna Tartt deserves all the accolades she got for her debut work. Now, I am looking forward to reading her second work, The Little Friend. But, first, I have to avail a copy.
About the Author
Born and raised in Mississippi, Donna Tartt is the author of the 2014 Pulitzer award-winning work, The Goldfinch. She studied in Bennington College where she met and became friends with fellow authors Bret Easton Ellis, Jill Eisenstadt, Jonathan Lethem.
Her debut work, The Secret History was a runaway success, getting positive and raving reviews from seasoned critics. Her second work, The Little Friend was published in 2002, a decade after her debut work was published. The Little Friend also got positive response from critics and won the WH Smith Literary Award in 2003. Her third work, The Goldfinch, unlike her first two works, got lukewarm reception from critics.